Africa

Ivory Coast: San Pedro cocoa port 'seized by Ouattara'

Pro-Ouattara forces are pictured with their weapons on 28 March 2011 in Blolequin, in western Ivory Coast
Image caption Pro-Ouattara forces began offensives on several fronts from their northern bases this week

Forces loyal to one of Ivory Coast's rival presidents, Alassane Ouattara, have captured the key cocoa-exporting port of San Pedro, residents say.

The fighters began their advance from the north against incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo on Monday.

A BBC reporter says some have reached the outskirts the main city of Abidjan, where heavy fighting is being reported.

The UN, which recognises Mr Ouattara as winner of November's poll, has voted to impose sanctions on Mr Gbagbo's circle.

They add to economic measures already taken by the EU and African groups.

The UN resolution, drafted by France and Nigeria, imposes a travel ban and assets freeze on Mr Gbagbo, his wife Simone and three of his closest associates.

The BBC's John James in the capital, Yamoussoukro, says almost the only area President Gbagbo still controls is Abidjan.

On Wednesday, pro-Ouattara forces captured Yamoussoukro, 240km (150 miles) north of Abidjan, and Mr Gbagbo's home town of Gagnoa has also fallen.

One million people have fled the violence - mostly from the main city Abidjan in the south - and at least 473 people have been killed since December, according to the UN.

Human Rights Watch says it has evidence that foreigners are being targeted by pro-Gbagbo forces because they are seen as being sympathetic to Mr Ouattara.

The US-based rights group has documented the massacre of at least 37 foreign workers in a small village in the west of the country hours after forces loyal to Mr Ouattara passed through on their advance south.

'Shooting'

The south-western port of San Pedro has been a key objective for Mr Ouattara because it would allow him to export cocoa and lumber, and will allow his supporters to resupply by sea.

Residents told the BBC there was sporadic shooting overnight after pro-Ouattara forces marched into the world's biggest cocoa-exporting port late on Wednesday.

They said the fighters now control the port area and the town centre.

In a separate advance, after taking Yamoussoukro on Wednesday, pro-Ouattara forces have pressed on towards Abidjan.

Residents on the outskirts of Abidjan report heavy fighting around the entry into the city on Thursday morning.

Our correspondent says there are several reports that the main prison has been broken into and the prisoners set free.

In the massacre on 22 March documented by Human Rights Watch, the group's researchers interviewed people who escaped from the village of Bedi-Gouzan.

The killings appear to have been a reprisal raid by pro-Gbagbo forces who used machetes and Kalashnikov rifles to do the killing.

Some of the attackers were believed to be mercenaries from neighbouring Liberia.

"As they were killing people, they accused us of being rebels… They said other things in English that I couldn't understand," a 34-year-old man from Burkina Faso said.

"I saw 25 people killed with my own eyes. They killed women, with children, with men."

There are approximately five million expatriate workers in Ivory Coast from neighbouring countries, who come to work on cocoa farms and tropical fruit plantations.

'Checkpoint killings'

West Africans are also being targeted in Abidjan, some at checkpoints, others house-to-house, Human Rights Watch says.

One witness in Abidjan described an incident on Wednesday:

"At noon, the militiamen stopped a pick-up truck and asked the driver and his apprentice for their ID papers. The driver was told to go ahead, but they pulled the apprentice out of the passenger seat and fired four times at him. His body is still in the street.

"This is their way of targeting foreigners… they judge your background from your ID papers."

Armed men supporting Mr Ouattara had also been killing pro-Gbagbo fighters and supporters, the Human Rights Watch statement said.

The enrolment of pro-Gbagbo youths into the army was due to start on Wednesday to replace soldiers who are not turning up for work or who have changed sides, our correspondent says.

Following the capture of towns in the west, a spokesman for Mr Gbagbo said the army had adopted a strategy of tactical withdrawal but warned it could use its "legitimate right of defence".

Mr Gbagbo's government offered a ceasefire on Tuesday but Mr Ouattara's fighters dismissed the appeal as a diversion.

An estimated 40,000 people have sought refuge at a Roman Catholic Church compound in the western town of Duekoue this week because of the fighting.

The pro-Ouattara forces have controlled the north of the country since a 2002 civil war.

Pro-Gbagbo troops have lost every battle against them since last November's election, our reporter says.

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