Rebels fighting to install internationally recognized Ivorian president Alassane Ouattara began besieging the main city of Abidjan yesterday after seizing a key seaport overnight and the hometown of the country’s entrenched ruler.
UN radio announced that the port of San Pedro, 300km west of Abidjan, was taken late on Wednesday. Residents said by telephone that soldiers retreated in trucks while firing into the air as the rebels moved into San Pedro, the world’s biggest cocoa exporting port.
In Abidjan, rebels already in control of several northern districts of the city attacked a prison and freed the inmates, a rebel commander said.
The rebels also advanced into Yopougon, a district of Abidjan that fervently supports incumbent but disputed Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, witnesses said.
Advancing on foot while firing into the air, the rebels set up roadblocks on one of Yopougon’s main thoroughfares and had been battling with police since early yesterday morning, said a local resident who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
Fighters took San Pedro in the early hours of the morning after sweeping southwards from strongholds in the north since Monday, seizing several other towns that had been under the control of forces loyal to Gbagbo.
Ouattara’s camp, meanwhile, warned Gbagbo to step down, saying otherwise their next target would be Abidjan.
“They have total control of the town since 4am,” a resident in San Pedro said. “They launched an offensive between 10pm and 1am and afterwards they carried out searches. Currently they are patrolling the town on board four-by-fours armed with Kalashnikovs” and rocket-launchers.
“They control the port, all the strategic sectors of the town,” he said.
Ivory Coast is the world’s top cocoa producer and exporter, but the industry has been strangled by international sanctions trying to choke off Gbagbo’s economic power and force him to step down from the presidency.
Gbagbo, who refuses to accept he lost November elections, came under more pressure when the US on Wednesday followed the EU in imposing sanctions against him and his leadership.
In San Pedro, pro-Ouattara fighters had met with local government authorities late on Wednesday, an official said.
“They came to pay a visit at the home of the prefect and assured us they were there for the security of the town,” the official from the prefecture said.
Witnesses reported militia supporting Gbagbo had looted several businesses and burned a police station after stealing weapons.
The noose tightened around the embattled strongman’s regime as pro-Ouattara fighters seized the political capital Yamoussoukro on Wednesday, reportedly to jubilant scenes. From there they pushed further south until by late on Wednesday they had entered San Pedro.
Ouattara’s camp, weary of four months’ of fruitless diplomatic initiatives, declared all peaceful solutions “exhausted” as they launched their offensive on Monday.
They now controlled three quarters of the country, said Ally Coulibaly, Ivorian ambassador to France — appointed by Ouattara.
Late on Wednesday, Ouattara’s prime minister Guillaume Soro told France24: “Gbagbo has only a few hours to leave, otherwise we will march on Abidjan and it will become a lot more complicated for him.”
A UN resolution, proposed by France and Nigeria, made the first explicit call by the 15-nation UN Security Council for Gbagbo to stand down in favor of Ouattara, whom the UN and virtually all countries say won the presidential election.