ABIDJAN – Armed opponents of Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo advanced through Abidjan on Monday as heavy fighting spread to new parts of the economic capital, striking fear into residents.
Forces loyal to internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara were continuing to move south through Abidjan from their powerbase in the northern suburbs, meeting fierce resistance from Gbago loyalists.
Violence has escalated to new heights in Abidjan as the once booming west African country hurtles towards civil war over a disputed November election, with some 400 already killed in post-poll violence, according to the UN.
State television loyal to Gbagbo announced on Monday night that "major decisions" would be taken in the coming hours after a meeting between the incumbent president and his generals.
Life in the normally buzzing city ground to a halt Monday as shots from heavy weapons and machine guns rang out in the suburbs of Yopougon, Adjame and Koumassi for the first time since the stand-off began.
The air heavy with humidity and tension, traffic was almost non-existent, with only a few taxis daring to venture out.
Heavy gunfire was heard shortly after 5:00 pm (1700 GMT), which witnesses said originated from Williamsville in the centre of Adjame, home to two large military camps, including the country's biggest gendarmerie camp.
"They are firing, the walls are shaking, we are all locked in the house," a mother told AFP, her voice choked with fear. Parents rushed to schools to pick up their children.
An engineer returning home from work in the early evening said he had to "pass through the rebels" to reach his house. Heavy gunfire appeared to have abated by 8:30 pm (2030 GMT).
Pro-Gbagbo troops held a strict perimeter of security around the two military camps in Williamsville, where they maintained control, according to inhabitants.
Before dawn a gun battle had raged in a Gbagbo stronghold near the home of army chief General Philippe Mangou, head of the Defence and Security Forces (FDS) loyal to the incumbent president.
Pro-Gbagbo troops led a search operation for hidden weapons in the Abidjan suburb after an attack which state-controlled television RTI attributed to "terrorists", as it often calls pro-Ouattara insurgents.
The unrest Monday followed a weekend of heavy losses in the pro-Ouattara Abobo suburb, where at least 10 people were reported killed after pro-Gbagbo troops carried out a bloody assault on Saturday.
France condemned the violence, with government spokesman Bernard Valero urging Gbagbo to "recognise the election of president Ouattara."
The UN Human Rights Council meanwhile examined a report on the crisis in Ivory Coast which calls for an international inquiry into human rights violations.
Gbagbo troops "have used excessive and lethal force to repress political opponents, leading the country into turmoil and creating a climate of suspicion, fear and repression," the report said.
Observers fear the deteriorating crisis signals a return to a 2002-2003 civil war which split the country into the rebel-held north and government-run south.
On the western front, New Forces (FN) fighters backing Ouattara seized the town of Doke on Sunday, the fourth since mid-February as they continued a drive toward Blolequin, about 10 miles (16 kilometres) away, which would open access to the port of San Pedro, the largest cocoa-exporting port in the world.
Ivory Coast is the world's largest producer and exporter of cocoa. Together coffee and cocoa make up 40 percent of the west African country's export earnings and about one-fifth of its gross domestic product in normal times.
On Monday Ouattara's government extended a ban on cocoa exports to March 31 in a bid to choke off Gbagbo financially.