Rebels backing Ivory Coast's internationally recognized leader Alassane Ouattara extended their gains by capturing a strategic crossroads and advanced toward the capital Tuesday after four months of political chaos following the disputed election.
Incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to leave office is quickly degenerating into a full-scale war in the world's main cocoa-producing country, but accepting the rebels' support could prove risky for Ouattara if the fighters commit abuses in his name.
The United Nations said Tuesday that rebels had fired on a U.N. reconnaissance helicopter Monday afternoon. The shots failed to hit the helicopter, though the U.N. denounced the attack, saying that it constituted a war crime.
The U.N. also expressed alarm about an attack blamed on Gbagbo security forces that left at least 10 civilians dead in Abidjan, the country's largest city. Pro-Gbagbo youth also were accused of killing one man by putting a tire around a man's neck and setting him ablaze.
"With the increase in human rights violations and barbaric practices, there are grounds for wondering whether President Gbagbo is still in charge of his forces and supporters," the local U.N. peacekeeping mission said in a statement Tuesday.
More than 1 million people have fled the fighting and at least 462 people have been killed since the Nov. 28 presidential election. U.N.-certified results showed Ouattara won the election but he has been unable to assume office because Gbagbo is refusing to leave after a decade in power.
The political standoff has led to daily fighting where security forces loyal to Gbagbo have used heavy weapons against the population, acts the U.N. said could be crimes against humanity. The city's chic downtown neighborhoods are now a puzzle of roadblocks manned by hooded youths allied with Gbagbo.
Ouattara, who is from the country's north, had long tried to distance himself from the rebels based there who fought in a brief civil war almost a decade ago that left the country split in two. However, rebels have been stepping up their offensive to install him in office in recent weeks.
"Ouattara hasn't given up on diplomacy," said Christian Bock, a senior adviser with the London-based security consulting firm Avascent International.
Bock, who led the U.S. goverment mission to demobilize rebel forces in neighboring Liberia, said the current offensive falls in line with Ouattara's strategy since the election, which has been to use the threat of force to push ahead negotiations.
"He is betting that the international and regional community will understand and support this decision, as he is portraying himself as being forced to accept a martial challenge to Gbagbo's assault," Bock said.
Those efforts had been largely contained to the country's west and the northern section of Abidjan, though the latest advance indicates their presence is now widespread.
Capt. Leon Alla, Ouattara's defense spokesman, said the central city of Daloa fell at 1 a.m. Tuesday. Several hours earlier the town of Bondoukou in the country's east had fallen, he said.
The United Nations said that fighting was still raging Tuesday morning in the two towns _ Daloa in the central region and Bondoukou in the east _ and that some 20,000 people had sought refuge at a Catholic mission in a third city, Duekoue, that rebels seized Monday morning.
"Terrified displaced persons have been streaming in, some with gunshot wounds as they cannot receive emergency treatment from the local hospital," said Jacques Seurt, the U.N. refugee agency's emergency coordinator in Ivory Coast, describing conditions in Duekoue.
Highways from Daloa lead south to the port of San Pedro and east to the administrative capital of Yamassoukro. Advisers to Ouattara say that if the fighters take either San Pedro or Yamassoukro, Gbagbo will likely buckle and accept an offer of exile.
Access to the San Pedro port is considered to be especially important since it can be used to resupply the rebels who do not currently have access to the sea. The Abidjan port is still controlled by Gbagbo.
A military commander with the local U.N. mission said that pro-Ouattara forces are continuing to advance east out of Daloa toward Bouafle, only 35 miles (50 kilometers) from Yamoussoukro. Rebels left behind in Daloa have been looting businesses, he said, targeting Lebanese and Moroccan shopowners.
In the country's largest city of Abidjan, suspected supporters of Ouattara are being pulled out of their cars and burned alive or beaten to death with bricks and iron bars.
The majority of the U.N. count of 462 confirmed killings were carried out by Gbagbo's security forces against Muslims and northerners perceived as being supporters of Ouattara, Human Rights Watch said in a report released earlier this month.
But rebels allied with Ouattara are accused of carrying out revenge killings in a predominantly Ebrie village, an ethnic group that voted in large numbers for Gbagbo.
Gbagbo has been pushing for an open war since it became clear that he would not be allowed to stay in power peacefully, Bock said.
"He doesn't have the luxury of time that Ouattara does, as his funds are running perilously low, and needs a quick win," he said.
Callimachi reported from Dakar, Senegal.