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Youths loyal to Laurent Gbagbo carry homemade weapons and a gun. AP Photo/Emanuel Ekra
Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast violence continues, rebels claim capture of town

Observers fear that full-blown civil war will erupt in the country, as protests against defiant strongman Laurent Gbagbo continue.

REBELS OPPOSED TO Ivory Coast’s strongman Laurent Gbagbo claim to have seized a town after a fierce battle in the country’s volatile west near the border with Liberia, panicking tens of thousands of refugees who already had fled violence over a deepening political crisis.

The New Forces rebels said in a statement on their website that they seized Toulepleu on Sunday.

The statement said: “The large town of Toulepleu in the west of Ivory Coast is now in the hands of the army of the New Forces (rebels) since Sunday at noon following an intense combat.”

The fighting first broke out following the country’s general elections last November, after which the internationally-recognised victor, Alassane Ouattara, was unable to take his position because the incumbent president refused to stand down. Clashes have become increasingly violent and the death toll continues to rise – last week Gbagbo’s forces fired into a group of unarmed female protesters, killing seven, reports the New York Times.

“They’re trying to install an atmosphere of terror,” said top Ouattara adviser Amadou Coulibaly. “But you can’t do more than what they’ve already done – firing on unarmed women. They’re getting desperate”, reports the Press Association.

The town near Liberia’s border was the scene of heavy fighting on Sunday between forces backing the political rivals who both claim to be Ivory Coast’s president. The rebels are backed by the UN-recognised president, Alassane Ouattara. Government forces are allied with former president Laurent Gbagbo, who is refusing to leave office.

Saah Nyuma, the deputy director of the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission, said he heard the sounds of explosions coming from Ivory Coast. At least one mortar shell fell on the Liberian side of the border on Sunday.

Analysts fear that Ivory Coast’s political crisis following a disputed presidential election will spill over into full-blown civil war.

Nearly 400 people have been killed since the November vote, according to a UN and an AP tally of bodies. The UN refugee body says more than 200,000 people have fled fighting in the main city of Abidjan in the last week, and more than 70,000 have crossed the border into Liberia to avoid fighting in the country’s west.

The UN declared Ouattara the winner, but Gbagbo refuses to cede power after more than a decade in office. His security forces are accused of abducting, torturing and killing political opponents.

- Additional reporting by AP

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