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Ouattara Forces Seize Cote d’Ivoire Towns

ABIDJAN, Mar 30 2011 - Forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised winner of Cote d’Ivoire’s presidential election, say they have seized control of another two central towns in their advance toward the country’s capital.

Captain Leon Alla, a defence spokesman for Ouattara, said pro-Ouattara forces took control of Bouafle early on Wednesday and Sinfra on Tuesday.

Heavy gunfire was heard early on Wednesday in Bouafle, which is midway between the cocoa-producing hub of Daloa and the country’s capital Yamoussoukro.

Residents of Tiebisso, 40km north of the capital, also reported fighting.

“Since about six o’clock this morning, we are hearing gunfire in Bouafle,” Alain Zagole, a resident of the town, told the Reuters news agency by phone.

“Machine gun fire and often heavy detonations. It is as if there are clashes,” he said.

Military campaign

Thousands of people continue to flee the country due to the heavy fighting following November’s contested elections.

In the past few days, forces loyal to Ouattara have stepped up their military campaign – moving from their strongholds in the north into the government-controlled south.

Earlier this week, they reportedly seized the towns of Daloa, Bondoukou and Belleville and were fighting for the town of Duekoue.

Marco Oved, a freelance journalist in Abijdan, said the seizures represent rapid victories for pro-Ouattara forces against fighters loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, the country’s incumbent leader who has refused to step down.

“They’ve moved hundreds of kilometres often from the west into the centre of the country, and the east into the centre,” he told Al Jazeera.

Pro-Ouattara forces

The pro-Ouattara forces, which Ouattara has recognised as his military and renamed the Cote d’Ivoire Republican Forces (FRCI), have controlled northern Cote d’Ivoire since the civil war of 2002-2003.

But Oved said it is unclear how much control is coming from Ouattara himself.

“He distanced himself from these rebel forces for the last eight years. It was only after the election that the rebels rallied to his side,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Ouattara accepted their support, but was hesitant to have any fighting going on, saying as the legitimately elected leader he didn’t want to have to take the country by force. The offensive over the last few days has shown that he feels he has no other options now.”

‘Barbaric practices’

The latest fighting comes a day after the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI) released a statement saying forces loyal to Gbagbo opened fire on civilians in Abidjan on Monday, killing about a dozen people.

“With the increase in human rights violations and barbaric practices, there are grounds for wondering whether president Gbagbo is still in charge of his forces and supporters,” Tuesday’s statement said.

“UNOCI believes it is imperative to end this spiral of violence by finding a definitive solution to the political impasse which stemmed from the post-electoral crisis.”

Gbagbo’s camp was not immediately available to comment on the U.N. statement.

Up to one million Ivorians have now fled fighting in the main city of Abidjan alone, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Others have been uprooted across the country and at least 112,000 have crossed into Liberia to the west.

Tuesday’s U.N. report of more civilians killed adds to a tally of 462 confirmed deaths since the crisis begin. Human rights groups say crimes against humanity may have already been committed.

The world body is also investigating allegations that 200 African nationals, from Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea and Togo, were killed near Guiglo, southwest of Duekoue.

*Published under an agreement with Al-Jazeera.

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