Troops loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of Ivory Coast’s November presidential election, are moving south, closing in on the capital and a key cocoa-exporting port as incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo calls for a cease-fire and talks.
The Republican Forces plan to advance on the capital, Yamoussoukro, today, said Meite Sindou, spokesman for Ouattara’s prime minister, Guillaume Soro. Shops and the city’s market are closed and the streets free of traffic, said resident Serge Kipre.
“The police are out with small trucks and four-by-fours, and they are wearing balaclavas,” Kipre said by phone. “We are all bracing ourselves for the arrival of the Republican Forces.”
The advance of the Republican Forces adds military force to the diplomatic and economic pressure on Gbagbo to step down. The insurgents have seized at least six towns this week and moved to within 240 kilometers (149 miles) of Abidjan, the commercial capital and Gbagbo’s base, Sindou said.
Buyo, about 120 kilometers from the key western cocoa-producing town of Daloa, was taken by the Republican Forces today, said Lass Com, spokesman for the group, in an e-mail. Fighting also erupted overnight in Tiebissou, which lies between the rebel headquarters in Bouake and Yamoussoukro, residents said.
“We have to start talks to resolve this crisis,” Ahoua Don Mello, a spokesman for Gbagbo, said in a phone interview broadcast on the website Abidjan.net. “We are hoping a dialogue will bring everybody to reason. Faced with direct violence, we are stretching out a hand in peace -- for the moment.”
Ouattara rejected the call for dialogue after meeting yesterday with leaders of four other opposition parties, including that of former President Henri Konan Bedie.
The coalition of parties “believes that all peaceful avenues to convince Laurent Gbagbo to acknowledge his defeat have been exhausted,” according to a statement published today in Abidjan’s Le Patriote newspaper.
The capture of Yamoussoukro would set the stage for urban warfare in Abidjan, said Rinaldo Depagne, an analyst for International Crisis Group.
“Diplomacy is over, now it’s war,” he said by telephone today from Dakar, Senegal. “They are basically preparing for the battle of Abidjan in two or three days.”
Top Cocoa Producer
Until now, the loyalty of the army and police has proved key to Gbagbo’s ability to retain control of much of the world’s top cocoa producer. He refuses to hand power to Ouattara, alleging fraud in the Nov. 28 election.
“It seems the security forces of Laurent Gbagbo refused to fight when the rebels entered the town,” said Modeste Kouao, a resident of the eastern town of Abengourou, which was captured yesterday.
Gbagbo called for talks mediated by the African Union, Agence France-Presse reported, citing an interview with Mello. He said the African Union had invited the rivals to talks in Ethiopia on April 4.
Pro-Ouattara forces had concentrated their campaign on the western cocoa-producing region, taking the towns of Duekoue, Guiglo and Daloa in the past few days, Sindou said. Duekoue sits on a major north-south highway linking the west with the port of San Pedro.
“Except in Duekoue, there was no real resistance,” Sindou said. The fighters also seized the central-west town of Zuenoula, he said late yesterday.
No all the towns gave up without a fight. Sindou said Bouafle, which is 60 kilometers west of Yamoussoukro, and the central town of Tiebissou were captured today. “Tiebissou was very difficult, there was heavy fighting,” he said by phone.
Michael Kouakou, a resident of Tiebissou, said he can still hear heavy artillery.
“We are scared and we don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “The electricity is cut, we can’t make any outgoing phone calls.”
The insurgents’ advance boosted Ivory Coast’s defaulted dollar-denominated bonds to their highest in almost three months, rallying 3.9 percent to 41.417 cents on the dollar by 2:29 p.m. in London.
Cocoa for May delivery fell to the lowest in more than two months, declining 32 pounds, or 1.6 percent, to 1,965 pounds ($3,147) a ton at 2:30 p.m. on NYSE Liffe in London today, after gaining 2.4 percent yesterday.
“Gbagbo is isolated financially, politically, and now he’s losing ground militarily,” said Drew Geraghty, a commodity broker at ICAP Futures LLC in Jersey City, New Jersey. “Traders are taking this as a sign that the risk premium is coming out of the market.”
The Republican Forces trace their roots to an uprising of mutinous military officers in 2002 that led to the division of the country into a rebel-held north and government-controlled south. The election was meant to unify the country, which was once the second-biggest economy in West Africa.
“All parties to the conflict have committed serious human-rights violations including unlawful killings and rape and sexual violence against women,” U.K.-based Amnesty International said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.
Rebels fired on and missed a United Nations helicopter that was flying over Duekoue on March 28, the UN mission in the country said in a statement.
Com, the fighters’ spokesman, said troops thought the helicopter belonged to Gbagbo.
“There was a lot of confusion,” he said.