ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Former rebels controlling the north of Ivory Coast opened up two new fronts on Monday, and heavy clashes broke out in a western cocoa-producing area as a bid to force incumbent Laurent Gbagbo from power escalated.
Rebels who seized the north in the 2002-3 civil war and now back Alassane Ouattara, Gbagbo’s rival and the man recognised as president by most world leaders, on Monday advanced on Duekoue, which had previously remained under Gbagbo’s control.
Ouattara’s men said they had taken Duekoue, lying on a main road in a region that produces around 250,000 tonnes of cocoa a year for the world’s top growing nation. But Gbagbo’s forces denied it and several witnesses said fighting was on-going.
A violent dispute over the presidential election last November that was meant to draw a line under Ivory Coast’s civil war has instead restarted it, after Gbagbo refused to step down despite U.N.-certified results showing that he lost.
The rebels also opened up two fresh military fronts in the east and west, in an apparent escalation of their push after fighting had been limited to Abidjan and the far west.
Witnesses said fighting erupted in the eastern village of Laodiba as pro-Ouattara forces tried to seize it, 5 km from the nearest major town of Bondoukou, near the border with Ghana.
A military source said rebels also marched south to an area just outside of Daloa, in the heart of Ivory Coast’s cocoa belt, but had not yet met resistance from Gbagbo’s forces.
“There has been fighting all day in Laodiba. Lots of villagers have fled the place to other villages,” resident Abdoulaye Timite told Reuters by telephone.
Up to one million Ivorians have now fled fighting in the main city Abidjan alone. Others have been uprooted across the country and around 100,000 from the west have crossed into neighbouring Liberia, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Although internationally-recognised as president, Ouattara remains holed up in a hotel, protected by U.N. peacekeepers.
Lacine Mara, spokesman for pro-Ouattara forces in the west, said they controlled Duekoue but a pro-Gbagbo militia operations chief, Yao Yao, told Reuters they had only seized part of it.
It was not possible to verify the different accounts but witnesses said combat with guns and heavy weapons continued.
A doctor in a hospital near Duekoue’s main hospital said many victims of gunshot wounds had come in for treatment.
“The combat has been going on the whole day in the town. It’s very intense and we are receiving the wounded,” Dr Moise Teki told Reuters by phone. “We don’t know who controls the town but the fighting is continuing.”
Pro-Ouattara forces have already seized four towns in the west and Gbagbo’s forces fear that if they capture enough important towns, they will be able to march south to the port of San Pedro, which ships about half Ivory Coast’s cocoa crop.
“The rebels want to take Duekoue and Guiglo so they can easily descend on San Pedro,” Yao Yao said. “We won’t let them.”
The violent stand-off has led to 462 confirmed deaths, according to the U.N. The world body is also investigating allegations that 200 African nationals -- from Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea and Togo -- were killed near Guiglo, some 20 miles (30 km) to the southwest of Duekoue.
They have been targets of a hate campaign by state TV accusing West African foreigners of being behind the rebellion.
Last week 15,000 pro-Gbagbo youths turned up at army headquarters to enlist, raising fears of all out war.
Weeks of diplomatic efforts by the African Union (AU) to resolve the crisis have failed, and the AU has simply re-affirmed its position that Ouattara is rightful president.
Ouattara rejected the African Union’s nomination of Jose Brito, Cape Verde’s ex-foreign minister, as an envoy to negotiate the crisis, arguing he was too close to Gbagbo.
Brito told Reuters late on Sunday that he had “no personal interest in the subject, but as an African he wants a solution.”
The conflict and Western sanctions have sent the economy of what was once the region’s economic hub into a tailspin.
Ivory Coast’s 80,000 barrel per day (bpd) SIR refinery said it may be forced to shut from the middle of next month unless it gets fresh supplies of crude oil.
The European Union governments said they were preparing possible harsher sanctions against Gbagbo.
Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by David Lewis