ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Fighters supporting Ivory Coast's internationally recognized leader seized control of the nation's administrative capital on Wednesday, marking a symbolic victory after months of political chaos sparked when the country's former president refused to step down after an election.
The fall of Yamoussoukro caps a dramatic advance on the city from multiple directions this week by soldiers supporting Alassane Ouattara, but many believe a final bloody battle over the presidency is now destined for the commercial capital of Abidjan, only 143 miles (230 kilometers) away.
Capt. Leon Alla, a defense spokesman for Ouattara, confirmed to The Associated Press on Wednesday that "the town of Yamoussoukro is in the hands of the Republican Forces."
Also on Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to demand an immediate end to the escalating violence and impose sanctions on Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to relinquish the presidency, and his inner circle.
With the sounds of gunshots cracking over the telephone line, a woman at the downtown Hotel La Residence in Yamassoukro said the rebel group loyal to Ouattara was doing a victory tour, shooting into the air. Residents came out into the streets to welcome them.
The woman, who would not give her name for fear of reprisals, said soldiers and police had fled hours before the fighters arrived. When they first entered the city center, there were cries of alarm, she said, but those turned to shouts of joy and whistles of approval when the pro-Ouattara gunmen were recognized.
"Blitzkrieg seems to be the strategy, rather than fighting to clear every inch and hamlet," said Christian Bock, senior security analyst at Avascent International. "It will take an enormous amount of restraint to hold these forces back from moving onto Abidjan."
Alla said the forces hoped for a similar lack of resistance upon reaching the country's largest city, which is divided into neighborhoods backing Ouattara and others supporting former leader Gbagbo.
"Abidjan will be the same thing," he told the AP. "We'll enter without firing a shot because no FDS (pro-Gbagbo) soldier wants to die for Gbagbo."
But there was fighting Wednesday morning when forces loyal to Gbagbo tried to fight off the rebels for 3 1/2 hours before fleeing Tiebissou, a town 21 miles (35 kilometers) from Yamoussoukro, according to a priest reached there by telephone. Another priest said he saw the bodies of three dead soldiers. Both spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Dr. Koueate Karim, medical director of rebel-held, northern Bouake, said he treated 15 wounded Wednesday from the fighting at Tiebissou and a bus shot up by Gbagbo militiamen.
"They were on a bus, all civilians, riding from Yamoussoukro to Bouake and the militia just sprayed the bus with gunfire," he said, quoting victims.
International observers and governments around the world backed the results issued by Ivory Coast's electoral commission which showed Ouattara had won the November presidential election, but Gbagbo has refused to give up power after a decade in office. Up to 1 million people have fled the fighting which several analysts are now calling a civil war and at least 462 people have been killed since the vote.
The two men have vied for the presidency for months, with Ouattara using his considerable international clout to financially and diplomatically suffocate Gbagbo. After the final round of diplomatic efforts had failed, the rebels launched a dramatic offensive this week, seizing control of a dozen towns since Monday alone.
They advanced on three fronts: in the west, center and east of the country. The west and central columns have converged on Yamoussoukro and may join the eastern front, which is heading directly for Abidjan, where the presidential palace is located as well as the guarded mansion where Gbagbo has lived during the past decade.
Along Ivory Coast's eastern border with Ghana, the rebels secured Bondoukou and Abengourou Tuesday and got as far as Akoupe, which is only 70 miles (113 kilometers) from Gbagbo's seat of power in Abidjan.
As the rebels advanced, Gbagbo spokesman Don Mello called for a cease-fire and mediation, telling that Radio France Internationale that the army has adopted a strategy of tactical withdrawal. He warned, however, that Gbagbo's forces could use their "legitimate right of defense."
Asked about the cease-fire offer, Ouattara's political party said it was necessary to resort to legitimate force. "All peaceful avenues to convince Laurent Gbagbo of his defeat have been exhausted," said the statement issued Tuesday.
Late Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on the U.N. peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast to "use all necessary means to carry out its mandate to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence ... including to prevent the use of heavy weapons against the civilian population."
The resolution also slapped a travel ban and asset freeze on Gbagbo, his wife, and three key aides.
Ouattara, whose parents hail from the country's north, had long tried to distance himself from the rebels based there who fought in a brief civil war almost a decade ago that left the country split in two. The fighters say they have taken up his cause of their own volition and say they plan to fight until the democratically elected leader is able to assume office.
While moving on Yamoussoukro and Abidjan, the rebels have also been advancing toward the seaport of San Pedro.
While San Pedro is a key objective for Ouattara, because it will allow him to export cocoa and lumber, and will allow the fighters to resupply by sea, the final battle will take place in the commercial capital of Abidjan, which is split into pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara neighborhoods.
Fighting in these areas has been almost daily, with the army still loyal to Gbagbo routinely using mortars, tanks and machine guns against civilians. In the past several weeks, fighters loyal to Ouattara have taken effective control of several northern districts in the city.
The palm-lined boulevards snaking along Abidjan's lagoons have now become a puzzle of checkpoints, some manned by boys in Gbagbo T-shirts and others headed by men garlanded in amulets and fetishes, the sign of the northern rebels.
Associated Press writers Michelle Faul in Johannesburg, Greg Keller in Paris and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.