By Loucoumane Coulibaly and Ange Aboa
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Ivory Coast's presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara seized two towns near the country's official capital and advanced to within 130 km (80 miles) of the cocoa port of San Pedro on Wednesday, witnesses said.
Forces loyal to Ouattara have launched offensives from the east, west and center of the country in recent days, and now control key cocoa-producing areas in a southward push to dislodge incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to leave after a disputed election.
Tens of thousands of civilians have sought refuge from the fighting in church compounds and other public buildings.
Meanwhile, pro-Gbagbo youth killed seven civilians when they opened fire in a pro-Ouattara neighborhood in the commercial capital Abidjan, witnesses said.
Residents of Tiebissou, 40 km (25 miles) north of the national capital, Yamoussoukro, said pro-Ouattara forces took it after they marched down from Bouake, the main city in the northern territory they have controlled since a 2002-3 war.
"The combatants were coming from Bouake and took the town. They are patrolling everywhere in town," said resident Sebastien Konan. "The (Gbagbo) loyalists have fled."
Residents said pro-Ouattara forces advancing from the west also took control of Bouafle, leaving them some 60 km away from Yamoussoukro, the town that is officially the capital but which functions as little more than a presidential retreat.
Meanwhile, another group of pro-Ouattara fighters took control of Soubre, the last main town on the road to the cocoa port of San Pedro.
"The Republican forces took the town without any resistance," said Madou Kone, a resident.
The fighting erupted out of a violent dispute over last November's presidential election that U.N.-certified results showed Ouattara won, but which Gbagbo refuses to concede, and which has reignited the civil war it was meant to end.
The push through the country's western regions has left Ouattara in charge of most of the cocoa-growing areas while towns in the east are also falling in a southerly march toward the main commercial and government city, Abidjan, where Gbagbo is located.
An army source confirmed Tiebissou had fallen. "Our men have retreated to Yamoussoukro. We will hold the city, because it is an important gateway to Abidjan," he said.
As the fighting has intensified, about 30,000 Ivorians and West African migrants have been forced to seek refuge in an overcrowded Catholic mission in the town of Duekoue with little or no access to food, water or health facilities, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.
Thousands more have sought shelter in public buildings, adding to the estimated one million Ivorians have now fled fighting in Abidjan alone, according to the U.N. refugee agency. At least 112,000 have crossed into Liberia to the west.
Some 472 people have been killed, the U.N. says.
The areas pro-Ouattara forces now control produce about 600,000 tons of cocoa a year, half national output.
World cocoa prices, which have risen to 30-year highs in recent months, have fallen on the Ouattara push. London cocoa was down 2.2 percent at 1447 GMT on Wednesday on hopes that exports could soon be freed up.
ARMING THE PATRIOTS
Until the push south this week, the worst of the violence had centered on Abidjan, where anti-Gbagbo insurgents, who don't necessarily support Ouattara, have seized parts of town.
Witnesses said armed youths loyal to Gbagbo killed seven when they opened fire in Adjame on Wednesday.
"The youths arrived this morning. Some were wearing masks, some combat fatigues. They fired at random on people on the side of the road," Badou Jean, a market trader who witnessed the incident in Adjame, told Reuters after he fled with his family.
Gbagbo's camp was not immediately available for comment.
In a sign violence could become much more widespread, the army called on youths loyal to Gbagbo to enlist in the military.
"The Young Patriots are at army headquarters to pick up weapons to go and fight. They will get a few days of training," an officer at army headquarters said on Wednesday.
Gbagbo's often violent youth wing, the Young Patriots, are considered his most dangerous and unpredictable weapon. They have caused mayhem in the past and have recently set up road blocks, armed with AK-47s, sticks and machetes.
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.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Callus in Geneva; Writing by David Lewis and Tim Cocks; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Giles Elgood)