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Friday, February 25, 2011
MACTV News: Ivorian rebels seize town, threaten advance, Posted by Menelik Zeleke
February 25, 2011 4:10:40 PM
* Rebels take town in west, announce advance south
* Residents flee as rival forces clash in Abidjan
* Shots heard in capital Yamoussoukro
(Adds confirmation town seized) By Loucoumane Coulibaly and Charles Bamba
ABIDJAN/BOUAKE, Ivory Coast, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Rebels controlling northern Ivory Coast have seized a town in government territory and said on Friday they were still advancing, raising the prospects of a return to open war.
Loyalists of Laurent Gbagbo, clinging to power after an election most of the world says he lost, confirmed the fall of Zouan-Hounien in an overnight attack and said they would fight to take it back.
"We're in the process of re-organising ourselves," Yao Yao, head of operations of the pro-Gbagbo Front for the Liberation of the Greater West militia told Reuters by phone from the region.
The small, remote town lies in western Ivory Coast near the forested border with Liberia and is not on a key axis, but the fighting there marks a major escalation after a week of growing violence in the world's biggest cocoa producer.
Rebel spokesman Ouattara Seydou said the New Forces had been attacked from Zouan-Hounien and were moving south to another town held by Gbagbo loyalists.
Ivory Coast's spiral back towards a war fuelled by ethnic animosities follows an election last November which Gbagbo's rival Alassane Ouattara is almost universally recognised to have won.
Gbagbo, in power for more than a decade, has refused to leave the presidency of once prosperous Ivory Coast, which has been split between north and south since a 2002-03 war.
African Union efforts to end the crisis through diplomacy have made no headway.
The spreading violence has killed more than 300 people according to the United Nations, but diplomats think that figure hugely understated because the military rarely discloses its casualties or civilians killed by soldiers.
The threat to supplies has pushed cocoa futures to their highest in more than 30 years.
Gun battles raged overnight in the Abobo neighbourhood of the main city of Abidjan where insurgents, dubbed by local media the "invisible commandos", have risen up against Gbagbo.
"Gun shots were echoing everywhere throughout the night and there was heavy arms fire," said resident Souala Tiemoko as hundreds of people marched along the road out of the district of quarter of a million, salvaging whatever belongings they could.
Gbagbo's government spokesman Ahoua Don Mello says the gunmen in Abobo are rebels who have come down from the north.
Ouattara's parallel government, operating out of a hotel guarded by U.N. peacekeepers, says they are civilians and army defectors who have taken up arms against Gbagbo.
Elsewhere in Abidjan, members of the pro-Gbagbo "Young Patriots" erected roadblocks and set fire to buses and taxis after their leader Charles Ble Goude called on people to set up "self-defence" units to protect themselves from the rebels.
Shots were also heard in the official capital Yamoussoukro.
Fleeing businesses, and economic sanctions by the European Union and United States aiming to squeeze Gbagbo are fast wrecking the economy of this once prosperous nation.
Ivory Coast's 80,000 barrel per day SIR refinery, a target of Western sanctions, said on Friday it was operating "at a minimum" and is struggling to secure crude oil.
The U.N. refugee agency said it had reports that the number of people crossing into neighbouring Liberia had jumped from around 100 per day to 5,000 after the latest clashes in western Ivory Coast. (Additional reporting by Ange Aboa, Luc Gnago and Tim Cocks; writing by David Lewis and Tim Cocks; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)