ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast rebels have seized a third town in the west of the African country, forces loyal to disputed incumbent Laurent Gbabgo said on Monday, adding that reinforcements were on the way to try and take it back.
A post-election power struggle between Gbagbo and his rival Alassane Ouattara has sparked gun battles in the main city Abidjan and encouraged northern rebels now backing Ouattara to push south in the heaviest fighting since a 2002-2003 civil war.
“The rebels took Toulepleu yesterday (Sunday) after combat that lasted the whole day,” Yao Yao, operations chief of Gbagbo’s Front for the Liberation of the Great West (FLGO), said of rebels who last week took two smaller western towns.
“There were not enough of us to contain them this time as we were hugely outnumbered,” he said, adding the FLGO had retreated to await reinforcements and was preparing a counter-attack.
The United Nations fears the world’s top cocoa grower could slip back into war, a prospect which has helped cocoa futures break 30-year highs. Supplies have already been strangled by a combination of sanctions, Ouattara’s call for a temporary export ban, and the near-collapse of the local banking system.
Industry regulatory data on Monday showed 475,345 tonnes, more than a third of annual output, of unexported cocoa beans were currently sitting at Ivorian ports.
No death toll was available from Sunday’s fighting. But residents in Liberian border villages told Reuters that wounded fighters were crossing over, seeking medical attention and that inhabitants were spilling into neighbouring towns.
“We learned that Toulepleu had fallen into rebel hands and since then the inhabitants are arriving here in Guiglo to take refuge,” Issa Koma, a local cocoa farmer, told Reuters by phone.
“There are a lot of them on the road.”
The U.N. says at least 365 have been killed in the crisis. Diplomats believe the real figure may be much more as the Ivorian army rarely reports deaths and access is difficult.
Around 300,000 Ivorians have fled their homes to shelter elsewhere in the country, while 72,000 have taken refugee across the border in Liberia, the U.N. Refugee Agency estimates.
Officials from Ouattara’s parallel government said Ivorian troops and Gbagbo supporters pillaged 10 houses of Ouattara aides at the weekend. Pro-Gbagbo media said on Monday Ouattara supporters had done the same to officials close to Gbagbo.
U.N.-certified results gave Ouattara an eight-point margin of victory but Gbagbo says the outcome was rigged and has defied broad international pressure to step down.
Aside from the paralysis of the cocoa sector, the virtual collapse of the banking sector has made even the most basic economic activity difficult and undermined investor faith in the one-time economic star of the sub-region.
British miner Cluff Gold Plc said on Monday it had suspended operations at its Angovia mine due to shortages of fuel, explosives, cement and cyanide and will not reopen it until political stability returns.