Abidjan: Fighters allied with Ivory Coast`s globally recognised president seized a western town held by his rival Laurent Gbagbo, as the African Union pressed on with efforts to end a deadly political stalemate.
Fierce fighting broke out on Sunday between forces loyal to Gbagbo and former rebels who now back Alassane Ouattara, as a senior African Union official flew out of the country after meetings with both leaders.
The pro-Ouattara fighters had captured Toulepleu, near the border with Liberia, sources from both sides said.
"There has been bitter fighting at Toulepleu.... "The New Forces (FN, ex-rebels) have taken the town," a local politician said.
"The rebels outnumbered our young people who are defending the town and who had to pull back."
A source at the ex-rebels` command confirmed the news. "The town is entirely controlled by the FN," he said. One FN fighter said they were now looking to take the town of Blolequin, further to the east.
A source in Gbagbo`s Defence and Security Forces (FDS) also spoke of "heavy fighting with the use of heavy weapons" in Toulepleu on Sunday.
Toulepleu is a large town near the border with Liberia, and was on the front line of fighting in 2002 and 2003 between Gbagbo`s fighters and rebel forces after a failed uprising against his rule.
Fighting resumed in the region in late February, with Gbagbo`s forces backed by local militia lined up against the ex-rebels of the New Forces, now allied with Ouattara.
The renewal of hostilities has sent civilians fleeing over the border into Liberia, where tens of thousands of civilians have taken refuge since the power struggle between Gbagbo and Ouattara started three months ago.
The recent violence in the west of the country has led the UN Security Council to speak of fears of a civil war.
There was gunfire too on Sunday in the northern district of Abobo in Ivory Coast`s main city Abidjan, where just a few days earlier seven women were shot dead during a pro-Ouattara demonstration.
Witnesses and United Nations officials have blamed the pro-Gbagbo FDS for Thursday`s shootings in Abobo, although his forces have denied responsibility.
In the Ouattara camp on Sunday, one of his advisers Amadou Coulibaly said that youth loyal to Gbagbo had in recent days sacked some 20 houses belonging to his ministers and supporters.
But journalists at the pro-Gbagbo Etat Fraternite-Matin daily newspaper said their office had been the target of a rocket attack late Saturday. There were no casualties, they said.
Earlier on Sunday, African Union Commission chief Jean Ping left Ivory Coast a day after having talked with both Gbagbo and Ouattara, inviting them to talks on Thursday in a fresh bid to end their stand-off.
A source said Ping had proposed talks in Addis Ababa, where the African Union has its base, with the five heads of state trying to find a peaceful solution to the dispute.
Ouattara said on Saturday he was ready to attend, but there was no comment yet from Gbagbo or Paul Yao N`Dre, president of the constitutional council, who is close to Gbagbo and was also invited.
Ivory Coast has been plunged into political crisis since Gbagbo refused to cede power following the disputed November 28 poll last year.
A panel of five African leaders appointed by the African Union have been trying to find a way out of the standoff between the two rivals.
Gbagbo has run Africa`s leading cocoa-producing country since 2000 but has steadfastly refused to stand down since losing the November poll.