MONROVIA/ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Heavy fighting erupted in western Ivory Coast between rebels and forces loyal to incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo, sources along the Liberian border told Reuters on Sunday.
Gunfire could be heard by residents in Liberian border villages and wounded fighters were crossing over, seeking medical attention, the sources said.
Ivory Coast has been in turmoil since a disputed November election that threatens to rekindle the West African state’s 2002-03 civil war, and has already drastically hindered exports from the world’s top cocoa grower.
The standoff has escalated into open armed conflict in the west and parts of the main commercial city Abidjan, and fears of another civil war have pushed cocoa futures to break regular 32-year highs.
“We in Tapeta, here, did not sleep last night from the sounds of the guns (in Ivory Coast),” a Red Cross official said, asking not to be named.
“It sounded like the war was moving into this area.”
A source from a pro-Gbagbo militia group confirmed that fighting had broken out in the western town of Toulepleu, near Liberia’s border, currently under control of pro-Gbabgo forces.
“Since 5 a.m. this morning the rebels have been seen in Toulepleau and combat started with the security forces,” Yao Yao, head of Gbagbo’s paramilitary Front for the Liberation of the Greater West (FLGO), told Reuters by phone.
“The fighting is continuing until now.”
No casualty toll was available and the rebels’ spokesman was unavailable for comment.
If Toulepleau falls to the rebels, it would be the third town since they captured the smaller Zouan-Hounien and Bin-Houin, though none are strategically important.
“Many young people from the border towns were recruited by both forces in Ivory Coast,” a resident in the Liberian town of Dialah said.
“We were told that Gbagbo’s men were dislodged yesterday, but today, there is still resistance.”
Gbagbo claims he won the poll despite U.N.-certified results showing his rival Alassane Ouattara with an eight-point margin of victory, triggering a standoff that has killed hundreds.
Tens of thousands of people have fled Ivory Coast to Liberia, and analysts are worried Ivory Coast’s instability could spill over into its fragile neighbors.
Reporting by Alphonso Toweh and Ange Aboa; Writing by Richard Valdmanis and Tim Cocks; Editing by Matthew Jones