ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Rebels took the largest city in Ivory Coast's cocoa-rich west on Thursday after a day and night of fighting, rebels, residents of the city and Western military sources said.
Residents reported rebels patrolling the city of Man at daylight Thursday, after the last government soldiers fled.
Locals in Man, a city of 135,000, said the rebels were Liberians, speaking only English — members of the newest and most-feared western faction in the three-month-old rebellion that has shattered this once-stable West African nation.
"The fighting went all night," said one man reached by telephone at his home in the center of Man, "The only soldiers in town are rebels. There are no loyalists."
Rebels reportedly held both the city and the airport. Western military officials confirmed that rebels controlled Man, and rebels boasted Ivory Coast's vital commercial capital in the south was next.
"Our objective is to get to Abidjan and control the whole country," Felix Doh, the rebel commander in Man, told The Associated Press by telephone.
Government soldiers backed by foreign mercenaries, tanks and helicopter gunships had made Man one of the most heavily defended and fought-over sites in the growing war.
French forces evacuated foreigners from Man on Nov. 30 after rebels took the city in a surprise attack days earlier.
On Dec. 1, government forces reclaimed the hill-ringed town. Rebels since have carried out several ambushes south of the city, and Wednesday attacked full force to retake it.
Fighting in the Ivory Coast's west last month opened a new front in the war, and introduced Liberians to the fight — ill-disciplined, often drugged fighters feared by residents.
Ivory Coast's rebellion broke out Sept. 19 with a failed coup attempt, and quickly saw rebels seize the northern half of the once tranquil country. Rebels are demanding that President Laurent Gbagbo resign, opening the way for new elections.
West African leaders on Wednesday approved deployment of what's expected to be a 1,500-strong force to try to enforce a shattered cease-fire.
France, Ivory Coast's colonial ruler, already has more than 1,000 troops in the country and is building to a deployment of 2,500. French forces are charged with protecting their nationals and other foreigners and overseeing the cease-fire, but are taking an increasingly muscular role.
Ivory Coast is the world's largest cocoa producer. A key economic hub and port for West Africa, until its first-ever coup in 1999 it was the region's single-most prosperous and stable nation.