Ivory Coast town under control of Ouattara army

Gbagbo, who is refusing to step down, has called for an immediate ceasefire.

Bidjan: Forces backing Ivory Coast`s recognised president Alassane Ouattara on Wednesday seized a town close to the capital Yamassoukrou in a vast offensive to wrest control after a disputed election.

Ouattara`s Republican Forces paraded through the town of Tiebissou 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the capital following heavy fighting, residents said, continuing a push south as under-fire strongman Laurent Gbagbo sought to boost his army in Abidjan.

Fighters loyal to Ouattara also took control of another town 130 kilometres (80 miles) north of San Pedro, the strategically important cocoa exporting port.

Gbagbo, who is refusing to step down after a November election, has called for an immediate ceasefire and talks with his rival as a bloody presidential stand-off pushes the world`s top cocoa producer into civil war.

But, weary with failed diplomatic efforts four months after the vote, Ouattara`s camp has declared all peaceful solutions "exhausted", launching an offensive which has seen his forces close in on both the economic and political capitals.

"It is up to Gbagbo to lay down arms, it is up to (Charles) Ble Goude to stop manipulating the youth," Ouattara`s spokeswoman Anna Ouloto said, referring to the fiery leader of the "Young Patriots" - Gbagbo`s most fervent supporters.

She said a call by the Gbagbo camp for a ceasefire and talks was a "diversion."

After heavy fighting which started in Tiebissou before daybreak shooting abated in the beginning of the afternoon. Later a resident said, "Republican Forces are parading through the town. Some are in 4X4`s and some on foot."

"The Republican Forces (pro-Ouattara) are in control of Tiebissou. Commander Ousmane Cherif entered Tiebissou to the cheers of the population," another resident in the centre of the town said, referring to one of the army`s leaders.

In the past three days the fighters have rapidly descended south of a traditional ceasefire line splitting the country in two since 2002.

A failed coup against Gbagbo nine years ago left pro-Ouattara rebels in control of the north and the strongman holding the south.

On Tuesday Ouattara troops seized the towns of Duekoue and Daloa in the west of the country - both key entry points to areas of cocoa production as well as the road leading to San Pedro - the world`s largest cocoa exporting port.

In the Far East, Bondoukau fell to pro-Ouattara fighters, followed by Abengourou further south, residents reported, placing them 220 kilometres (150 miles) from Abidjan - the heart of Gbagbo`s power.

"All the peaceful routes to lead Laurent Gbagbo to admit his defeat have been exhausted," a statement issued Tuesday by Ouattara said as the fighting raged.

In response Gbagbo`s spokesman Ahoua Don Mello called for "an immediate ceasefire and the opening of talks under the mediation of the African Union high representative. Failing which, we will use our legitimate right of defence."

Ouattara has rejected the AU`s appointment of Cape Verde`s former foreign minister Jose Brito to mediate the crisis - citing his personal ties to Gbagbo.

In Abidjan, thousands of fervent Gbagbo supporters urged to enlist in the army if they are "willing to die for their country" were called for enrolment.

"The moment of enrolment has arrived" according to a communique from army chief of staff General Philippe Mangou, read on state television, adding this would be from March 30. Several hundred showed up on Wednesday morning.
Election-linked violence has left at least 460 people dead with as many as one million fleeing their homes, according to UN agencies.

Bureau Report

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