ABIDJAN Thousands of young supporters of Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo answered a call to join the army on Monday, while Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf warned the crisis risked destabilizing the West African region.
Around 400 Ivorians have died and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes since a dispute over a November 28 election that has since escalated into open conflict, with daily gun battles and heavy weapons fire in Abidjan.
Johnson-Sirleaf, whose country has received some 90,000 refugees from fighting in west Ivory Coast, told Reuters Ivory Coast was "already at war" and gave the starkest warning yet that peace in a region recovering from years of war was at risk.
"It's a serious threat to the stability of Liberia, and I might say to the stability of all neighboring countries," she said in an interview in Monrovia.
"There was a lot of attention to the Ivory Coast before the situation in Libya and the Middle East," she said. "The crisis in Ivory Coast slipped off the radar," she added, noting donor reaction to a $46 million U.N. aid appeal had so far been "very slow and inadequate.
U.N.-certified results showed the poll was won by Gbagbo's rival Alassane Ouattara, who is backed by forces who opposed Gbagbo in the 2002-2003 civil war and who still hold the north.
Gbagbo, who says the result was fixed, remains in control of the army and on Saturday the leader of his "Young Patriots" youth wing urged them to sign up for military service.
Chanting slogans like "We will kill them now" and "the rebels will die," thousands of prospective recruits crowded into a stadium at army headquarters to sign up. A soldier danced to music and shook his AK-47 rifle in the air, to loud applause.
As it filled up, military officials tried to seal a gate but were overwhelmed by the crowd who forced it open and burst in.
The large turnout underlines the growing influence of Young Patriot leader Charles Ble Goude, who on Saturday called on around 10,000 supporters at a rally to "liberate" the country.
"Our country is under attack, so we're organizing ourselves to re-establish order," Goude told Reuters at the signing up. "The legal way to do it is to put them in the regular army."
Ble Goude is accused by rights groups of inciting attacks on Ouattara supporters, U.N. peacekeepers and West Africans in Ivory Coast. He denies the charges.
A group of 15 Young Patriots were admitted to a hospital in Abidjan with serious injuries on Monday saying they had been ambushed by a dozen attackers on their way to the army event.
"They pointed their Kalashnikov's at us and ordered us into some shacks were we were beaten with sticks and truncheons until they let us go," said one of them, Patrice Kouame.
On Sunday, thousands joined an exodus from Abidjan, the main city in the world's top cocoa grower, crowding onto buses with their belongings and heading to the countryside.
The United Nations says some 435 people have been killed and another 450,000 forced from their homes since the crisis began.
The heaviest fighting between rival camps has taken place in Abidjan but clashes have also flared in the west as northern pro-Ouattara forces have pushed south across the ceasefire line that split the country after a 2002-03 civil war.
The 2002-2003 rebels, whom Ouattara last week recognized as his military and renamed the Ivory Coast Republican Forces (FRCI), said they captured a fourth town in the west on Monday.
"The town of Blolequin is now under the control of the FRCI since this morning, after intense combat," said Mara Lacine, a spokesman for the FRCI in the west.
A local cocoa trader in nearby Guiglo town said pro-Gbagbo troops had retreated to there from Blolequin. If the former rebels take Guiglo, the next town along, they will have a direct road through a forest to the major port of San Pedro.
The African Union earlier this month affirmed that Ouattara was president and proposed he lead a unity government including pro-Gbagbo elements, a proposal rejected by Gbagbo's camp.
(Additional reporting by Charles Bamba in Bouake, Simon Akam in Monrovia; Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Patrick Graham and Janet Lawrence)