Abidjan: Forces backing Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara began a fresh assault to remove Laurent Gbagbo from his last stronghold in Abidjan on Monday.
As the conflict escalated, France ordered more troops into the West African country to protect civilians.
A convoy of several dozen vehicles containing heavily armed pro-Ouattara troops and outfitted with mounted machineguns entered Ivory Coast`s main city at midday, the first elements of a large force that had massed on the northern outskirts for what they called a "final assault," according to a Reuters eyewitness.
Heavy machinegun fire and a few explosions could be heard minutes after they entered the city limits.
The commanding officer of the forces, Issiaka "Wattao" Ouattara, told Reuters he had 4,000 men with him plus another 5,000 already in the city. Asked how long he would need to take Abidjan, Wattao said: "We know when it starts, but could take 48 hours to properly clean (the city)."
Gbagbo has refused to cede power after a disputed November 28 election which U.N.-certified results showed Ouattara won, but Gbagbo rejected the results and accused the United Nations of bias. The standoff that followed has now turned into a resumption of the civil war of 2002-03.
After swiftly taking control of most of the country, pro-Ouattara forces have met fierce resistance in Abidjan where Gbagbo`s troops are holding on to positions around the presidential palace, Gbagbo`s residence, and state television.
After several days of fighting in Abidjan, nervous citizens ventured out to get food and water on Monday morning after being holed up at home because of the fighting.
Speaking on Sunday on the pro-Ouattara TCI television channel, Ouattara`s prime minister Guillaume Soro said their strategy had been to encircle the city, harass Gbagbo`s troops and gather intelligence on their arsenal.
"The situation is now ripe for a lightning offensive," which he said would come any time soon.
France said on Monday it was sending an extra 150 soldiers to help protect civilians in Ivory Coast.
The deployment brings the number of French troops in Ivory Coast to 1,650. France has about 12,000 nationals in the country and the French military contingent has already mounted patrols in Abidjan and taken control of the airport.
It had been expected that Ouattara`s forces would quickly overrun Gbagbo`s troops following defection by high ranking officers, but they have managed to withstand the assault so far and regain control of the state broadcaster RTI.
Through the television channel, they have broadcast virulent anti-French and anti-UN messages, while rallying support from Gbagbo`s youth wing, the Young Patriots, who have formed a human chain around Gbagbo`s residence and presidential palace.
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A Reuters reporter saw scores of Young Patriots gather by the lagoon near the palace with plastic buckets and bottles to collect water, guarded by jumpy soldiers brandishing AK-47s.
Gbagbo`s camp has also received a potential morale booster with the return of army chief General Philippe Mangou, who had sought refuge at the residence of the South African ambassador on Wednesday as pro-Ouattara troops advanced on Abidjan.
More than 1,500 people have been killed since the violence began five months ago.
The ICRC said it stuck by an estimate of 800 killed in the western town of Duekoue alone in intercommunal violence in one day last week, which Ouattara`s camp has said was "exaggerated."
African Union secretary general Jean Ping urged both sides to "show restraint and protect civilians" and said he hoped Ouattara would be able to take up "the office to which he has been democratically elected."
Ivory Coast`s $2.3 billion 2032 bond, on which it defaulted at the end of January, fell as much as 1.7 points on Monday, reversing some of last week`s gains as the market nervously eye the standoff which some fear may become prolonged.
Cocoa prices rose by 1.3 percent to $3,049 per ton on Monday morning as hopes faded for a speedy resolution of the crisis that would free up exports.