Fighting near Ivorian capital, Ouattara forces advance

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 30, 2011 7:41 AM

By Loucoumane Coulibaly

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - An offensive by forces loyal to Ivory Coast's presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara reached two towns near the country's official capital on Wednesday, witnesses said, a day after they seized swathes of territory.

Heavy gunfire was heard in the early hours in the town of Bouafle, midway between the cocoa producing hub of Daloa and the country's capital Yamoussoukro. Residents of Tiebisso, 40 km (25 miles) north of the capital, also reported fighting.

Forces loyal to Ouattara have launched offensives from the east, west and center in recent days, and now control key cocoa-producing areas in a southward push to dislodge incumbent Laurent Gbagbo who has refused to cede power after a disputed election.

As the fighting has intensified, about 20,000 Ivorians and West Africans migrants have been forced to seek refuge in an overcrowded Catholic mission in the town of Duekoue with little or no access to shelter, food, water and health facilities, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

"Since about 6 o'clock this morning, we are hearing gunfire in Bouafle. Machine gun fire and often heavy detonations. It is as if there are clashes," Alain Zagole, a resident of the town, said by phone.

"We cannot go out or leave, we do not know who is in town or those who are fighting," said Abi Cissoko, another resident of the town about 60 km (40 miles) from Yamoussoukro.

"The fighting is very intense here. We are hearing heavy weapons. It is difficult to put up with this," Rene Koffi told Reuters from Tiebissou, which marked the former ceasefire line since the 2002-3 war.

On Tuesday the forces loyal to Ouattara advanced to within 200 km (120 miles) of the two main port cities, meeting little resistance from forces loyal to Gbagbo.

The deputy chief-of-staff for the Ouattara-backed forces, Issiaka Ouattara, was quoted in the Ivorian newspaper Nord-Sud as saying their objective is to restore democracy and ensure that the choice of the people who elected Ouattara is respected.

Gbagbo's government on Tuesday called for an immediate ceasefire and the opening of dialogue but warned that the advancing forces could not take Abidjan, the economic capital.

Gbagbo's army spokesman, Colonel Babri Gohourou, said on state TV that the often violent pro-Gbagbo youth wing, the Young Patriots, had been called up from Wednesday to enroll in the army.

The violent dispute over last November's presidential election that U.N.-certified results showed Ouattara won, but which Gbagbo refuses to concede, has reignited the civil war it was meant to end.

The humanitarian toll of the conflict is mounting. A U.N. report of 10 more civilians killed in Abidjan on Monday adds to a tally of 462 confirmed deaths since the crisis begin.

(Writing by Bate Felix; editing by Giles Elgood)