Ivorian rebels capture major town

New Forces fighters allied with UN-recognised leader say Toulepleu fell after a fierce battle with government troops.

    The United Nations says nearly 400 people have died in Cote d'Ivoire clashes since November's disputed polls [AFP]

    Cote d'Ivoire's rebels say they have captured a town after a fierce battle in the country's volatile west near the border with Liberia, triggering panic among tens of thousands of refugees already fleeing violence over a deepening political crisis.

    The New Forces rebels said in a statement on their website that they seized Toulepleu on Sunday.

    The statement said: "The large town of Toulepleu in the west of Ivory Coast is now in the hands of the army of the New Forces (rebels) since Sunday at noon following an intense combat."

    The town near Liberia's border was the scene of heavy fighting on Sunday between forces backing the political rivals who both claim to be Ivory Coast's president months following a disputed election.

    The rebels are backed by the UN-recognised president, Alassane Ouattara, while government forces are allied with Laurent Gbagbo, who is refusing to step down.

    Gbagbo has been in power for more than a decade and his security forces - who insist they are still holding Toulepleu - are accused of abducting, torturing and killing political opponents.

    Meanwhile, the interior ministry on Monday released a statement saying at least three Ivorians were killed and 30 wounded in an armed rebel attack on a village seen as loyal to Gbagbo.

    The attack happened overnight in Anokoua-Koute, the ministry said of the area populated by the largely pro-Gbagbo Ebrie tribe. The village is within an Abidjan suburb ruled by fighters who profess support for Gbagbo's rival.

    Analysts fear the political crisis could spill over into a full-blown civil war.

    Nearly 400 people have been killed since the November 28 vote, according to a UN and an Associated Press tally of bodies.

    The UN refugee agency says more than 200,000 people have fled fighting in Abidjan in the last week, and more than 70,000 have crossed the border into Liberia to avoid fighting in the country's west.

    Over the weekend, gangs of young people aided by uniformed police ransacked houses in Abidjan belonging to officials allied with Ouattara.

    And on Thursday soldiers fatally shot six women who were protesting against Gbagbo's refusal to step down.

    Governments around the world swiftly condemned the killings, with Britain's foreign office minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, saying he was "deeply concerned" about the deteriorating security situation in Cote d'Ivoire.

    He also said he was "appalled" to hear that women were killed during a peaceful demonstration. 

    SOURCE: Agencies


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