- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Fighters supporting Ivory Coast’s internationally recognized leader seized control of the nation’s administrative capital on Wednesday, marking a symbolic victory after months of political chaos sparked when the country’s former president refused to step down after an election.

The fall of Yamoussoukro caps a dramatic advance on the city from multiple directions this week by soldiers supporting Alassane Ouattara, but many believe a final bloody battle over the presidency is now destined for the commercial capital of Abidjan, only 143 miles (230 kilometers) away.

Capt. Leon Alla, a defense spokesman for Ouattara, confirmed to The Associated Press on Wednesday that “the town of Yamoussoukro is in the hands of the Republican Forces.”

Also on Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to demand an immediate end to the escalating violence and impose sanctions on Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to relinquish the presidency, and his inner circle.

With the sounds of gunshots cracking over the telephone line, a woman at the downtown Hotel La Residence in Yamassoukro said the rebel group loyal to Ouattara was doing a victory tour, shooting into the air. Residents came out into the streets to welcome them.

The woman, who would not give her name for fear of reprisals, said soldiers and police had fled hours before the fighters arrived. When they first entered the city center, there were cries of alarm, she said, but those turned to shouts of joy and whistles of approval when the pro-Ouattara gunmen were recognized.

“Blitzkrieg seems to be the strategy, rather than fighting to clear every inch and hamlet,” said Christian Bock, senior security analyst at Avascent International. “It will take an enormous amount of restraint to hold these forces back from moving onto Abidjan.”

Alla said the forces hoped for a similar lack of resistance upon reaching the country’s largest city, which is divided into neighborhoods backing Ouattara and others supporting former leader Gbagbo.

“Abidjan will be the same thing,” he told the AP. “We’ll enter without firing a shot because no FDS (pro-Gbagbo) soldier wants to die for Gbagbo.”

But there was fighting Wednesday morning when forces loyal to Gbagbo tried to fight off the rebels for 3 1/2 hours before fleeing Tiebissou, a town 21 miles (35 kilometers) from Yamoussoukro, according to a priest reached there by telephone. Another priest said he saw the bodies of three dead soldiers. Both spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The medical director of Bouake, the rebel-held city further north, said he treated 15 wounded Wednesday from the fighting at Tiebissou shot by Gbagbo militiamen.

“They were on a bus, all civilians, riding from Yamoussoukro to Bouake and the militia just sprayed the bus with gunfire,” he said, quoting victims.

International observers and governments around the world backed the results issued by Ivory Coast’s electoral commission which showed Ouattara had won the November presidential election, but Gbagbo has refused to give up power after a decade in office. Up to 1 million people have fled the fighting which several analysts are now calling a civil war and at least 462 people have been killed since the vote.

The two men have vied for the presidency for months, with Ouattara using his considerable international clout to financially and diplomatically suffocate Gbagbo. After the final round of diplomatic efforts had failed, the rebels launched a dramatic offensive this week, seizing control of a dozen towns since Monday alone.

They advanced on three fronts: in the west, center and east of the country. The west and central columns have converged on Yamoussoukro and may join the eastern front, which is heading directly for Abidjan, where the presidential palace is located as well as the guarded mansion where Gbagbo has lived during the past decade.

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