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PARIS (Reuters) - Ivory Coast presidential claimant Laurent Gbagbo is no longer able to pay the salaries of his supporters and his days in power are numbered, a French diplomatic source said Wednesday. A stand-off between Gbagbo and his rival Alassane Ouattara is threatening to tip the world's top cocoa exporter back into civil war after eight years of peace, as clashes between factions loyal to either party grow increasingly deadly.
Gun battles are raging in the west of the country after Ouattara called for a ban on cocoa exports, which has largely been followed by exporters, choking Gbagbo's finances as he clings to power despite widespread calls for him to step down.
A high-ranking French diplomat said the export ban, when taken together with existing international sanctions against Gbagbo's camp, were eroding his hold on power.
"The sanctions are working, Gbagbo has lost all capacity to keep the country functioning," the diplomat told Reuters. "Gbagbo's power over the economy is crumbling.
Ivorian state television reported this week that Gbagbo had issued a decree under which the state becomes the sole purchaser of cocoa and handles its export to world markets -- a move condemned by France, Britain and the United States.
Cocoa stores whose value the diplomat estimated at $1.5 billion have been piling up in storehouses on Abidjan's port. The cocoa is only meant to be stored for 10 days before being shipped, and some sacks have begun to rot.
With revenue from the cocoa sector dwindling, Gbagbo is no longer able to pay public sector workers and the morale of his army has begun to weaken, the diplomat said.
"His days as a leader who can pay those who support are numbered. All of this is slowly starting to look like the end of the game for Gbagbo," he said.
The recent killing of seven women protesters was a sign of desperation, he added.
Hundreds of Ivorians have been killed since the United Nations recognized Ouattara, a former World Bank official, as the winner of a November 28 election.
"He will have to be held accountable, the ICC (International Criminal Court) will have to be brought in," the diplomat said. However, the diplomat did not elaborate on plans to toughen sanctions against Gbagbo, or whether a French military force stationed near the hotel where Ouattara has been holed up for three months would enter the fighting.
An 8,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast is due to be reinforced by 2,000 soldiers and has already received two combat helicopters, a U.N. representative told French media over the weekend.
Reporting by Yves Clarisse; writing by Nick Vinocur; editing by Angus MacSwan