Forces loyal to Ivory Coast’s two rival leaders are engaged in fierce fighting for the strategic town of Duekoue in the western cocoa-growing region.

Fighters backing Alassane Ouattara, widely recognised as the winner of last year’s election, say they have taken the town.

They have seized several towns from troops loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power.

The United Nations estimates some one million people have fled the violence.

November’s election was supposed to reunify the country, which has been divided since a 2002 civil war.

But the stand-off has led to widespread fears of renewed full-scale hostilities in the world’s largest cocoa-producing country.

The New Forces former rebels, who support Mr Ouattara, remain in control of northern areas.

They have mostly stayed on their side of the 2003 ceasefire line but have also seized territory in the west, near the Liberian border.


Their claims to be in control of Duekoue have not been independently confirmed.

But a pro-Gbagbo militia leader told Reuters news agency his forces were still in part of the town, which would be the biggest to fall so far.

“Shooting is coming from all sides, we have the impression we are surrounded,” a pro-Gbagbo soldier told the AFP news agency.

The BBC’s John James in the central town of Bouake says that if the New Forces do capture Duekoue, it would open the way for attacks on either the major town of Daloa to the east or the port of San Pedro, a key economic target.

He also says another loss by the pro-Gbagbo army would also further demoralise the state forces who have lost every engagement so far and are struggling in the main city, Abidjan, to contain a guerrilla force, known as the “Invisible Commandos” who have taken control of the northern part of the city.

In the areas under New Forces control, schools have reopened for the first time since the election.

They were closed as part of a campaign of civil disobedience aimed at forcing Mr Gbagbo from power.

At least 462 people have been killed since December, according to the UN peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast.

The 9,000-strong UN mission in Ivory Coast has accused pro-Gbagbo forces of firing shells at pro-Ouattara areas of Abidjan, causing widespread civilian casualties.

Pro-Ouattara forces in Abidjan have also been accused of killing supporters of Mr Gbagbo.

France last week circulated a draft resolution at the UN calling for sanctions against Mr Gbagbo and his allies.

The European Union has already taken similar measures, leading banks to shut down and badly hitting the cocoa trade, which is one of Mr Gbagbo’s main sources of revenue.

Source: BBC