ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara seized two towns in the heart of the western cocoa belt overnight, in an offensive that may soon enable them to control a major port.
Witnesses and fighters from both sides said on Tuesday that the former rebels, who have controlled northern Ivory Coast since the civil war of 2002-3, had seized Daloa from incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo's troops.
They also took Duekoue, which opens up a direct route to the major exporting port of San Pedro. The area they now control produces about 600,000 tonnes of cocoa a year, half of Ivory Coast's output.
A violent dispute over last November's presidential election that U.N.-certified results showed Ouattara won, but which Gbagbo refuses to concede, has rekindled the civil war it was meant to settle for good, with heavy fighting in the main city Abidjan and across a north-south ceasefire line.
A source in the pro-Gbagbo military said Daloa and Duekoue had fallen, but fighting continued in parts of Duekoue.
"The combat was very violent in Daloa the whole night, but we couldn't keep our positions," he told Reuters. "It has fallen into rebel hands."
The rebels have this week opened up two fresh military fronts, seizing Bondoukou in the east, near the Ghana border, and Daloa in the west, in an escalation of their offensive. Fighting had been limited to Abidjan and the far west.
"They took Daloa and they are circulating everywhere," said hotel-owner Jean Marie Gado. "No one is going out, all the shops are shut. The place is like a cemetery."
Unlike the last war, when French peacekeepers stepped in at Duekoue to stop the rebels advancing on San Pedro, world powers are this time furious with Gbabgo for torpedoing the peace process by rejecting the election results.
All recognize Ouattara as president and diplomats say they are therefore unlikely to hinder the advance of the former rebels fighting Ouattara's cause.
"We have taken both towns. They are in our hands, that's certain. But there is still shooting going on," a military spokesman for Ouattara's forces, Seydou Ouattara, said by phone.
(Reporting by Ange Aboa and Tim Cocks; Writing by Tim Cocks)