Battle reaches Abidjan
Ivory Coast's Alassane Ouattara said his forces were "at the gates" of Abidjan yesterday after a rapid advance aimed at unseating his rival, Laurent Gbagbo.
Ouattara called on the remaining Gbagbo loyalists to switch sides to prevent further suffering.
Pro-Ouattara forces took the key cocoa port of San Pedro overnight and residents said they had moved eastwards towards Abidjan.
In a further blow to Gbagbo, his army chief-of-staff sought refuge in the South African ambassador's residence in Abidjan.
The government confirmed that General Phillippe Mangou had sought refuge there.
Witnesses in Abidjan, Gbagbo's last remaining stronghold, said the streets were virtually empty and gunfire could be heard overnight and yesterday morning.
Gbagbo has resisted pressure from the African Union and the West to step down since an election in November, which UN-certified results showed he lost to Ouattara, sparking a deadly power struggle.
Forces loyal to Ouattara launched an offensive this week on three fronts, and towns across the country fell one after another as they swept south.
"I call on you to serve your country . It is time to join your brothers in the Republican Forces," Ouattara said on his television station yesterday.
Cocoa prices have tumbled since the push began. The capture of San Pedro, which ships half of the top grower's beans, could, in theory, mean a resumption in exports.
But diplomats said European Union sanctions, including an embargo on cocoa shipments from San Pedro, would remain in place and if any exemption were discussed it would take four or five days to come into force.
Pro-Ouattara forces took San Pedro overnight after it was abandoned by Gbagbo loyalists. Residents in Sassandra, between San Pedro and Abidjan, said the forces had passed through there yesterday.
Other pro-Ouattara forces are pushing down from the northwest and the northeast.
The push south has raised hopes across Ivory Coast's north, where Ouattara's support is the strongest, for a swift end to the crisis.
"We are more than optimistic that within 48 hours we can have our peace," said Zongo Esaie, a resident of Ferkessedougou.
But should Gbagbo decide to put up a fight, Ouattara's forces risk becoming bogged down in bloody urban warfare in Abidjan, where pro-Gbagbo forces have retreated to and his youth supporters have sought to join the army.
Machine-gun fire rang out from Yopougon, near the city, while heavier weapons were heard closer to the centre of Abidjan.
Ouattara's prime minister Guillaume Soro told French radio yesterday that a government of national unity was still possible if Gbagbo stepped aside in the "coming hours". Otherwise it would be "winner takes it all".
At least 472 people have been confirmed killed since the standoff began, according to the UN, and a humanitarian crisis is worsening, with a million people displaced from Abidjan, the commercial capital, alone. The real figure is likely to be much higher.
Thousands of people have sought shelter in churches and public buildings and at least 112000 have crossed into Liberia to the west.