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Ivory Coast on the brink as new clashes erupt in Abidjan

Heavy-weapons fire resounded through Ivory Coast's commercial capital Abidjan on Saturday, a day after UN head Ban Ki-moon raised the spectre of civil war.


AFP - Fresh clashes erupted on Saturday in Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan a day after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned the crisis-hit nation was on the brink of civil war.

Heavy-weapon gunfire broke out in the commercial capital Abidjan where forces loyal to rival claimants for the presidency have been fighting, witnesses said.

The gunfire came from the northern Abobo area that is a stronghold of Alassane Ouattara, internationally recognised to have won the November 28 election although incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refuses to step down.

It follows deadly clashes earlier this week in the area, from where Gbagbo's camp says "rebels" allied with Ouattara are operating, a charge that has been denied.

Witnesses said the gunfire resumed in the early afternoon after the shooting stopped overnight Friday, although residents continued to flee Saturday.

"The neighbourhood is empty," one resident told AFP, adding that families were leaving for other districts of Abidjan.

"People think the neighbourhood will be bombed," said another resident who had decided to stay.

Mini-buses were able to enter the area and were "stormed" by mothers and their children, a young woman said who had fled to the western Yopougon district to stay with her family.

"This morning I saw bodies, apparently civilians, that nobody has recovered," a driver told AFP but was unable to say when the people were killed.

No toll has been given for the latest flare-up.

Fighting erupted in various parts of the country on Friday, with forces loyal to Ouattara seizing two towns in the west of the country, close to the border with Liberia, but the FDS forces loyal to Gbagbo said Saturday they had driven them off.

Forces from the two sides also engaged in a gunbattle in Yamoussoukro that lasted several hours but calm had returned to the political capital, witnesses said Saturday.

Businesses in the city are slowly reopening but many shops are closed and the market is practically empty, a local journalists said early Saturday.

Ban warned Friday the violence marked "a disturbing escalation which draws the country closer to the brink of reigniting civil war".

Ivory Coast has been gripped by unrest since the November poll and divided since late 2002, with the New Forces, a former rebel group allied to Ouattara, holding the north and Gbagbo loyalists the south.

The election, monitored by the United Nations, was intended to be a step on the way to reuniting Africa's leading cocoa producer, a former economic powerhouse of the region.

Four African leaders -- Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania, Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Idriss Deby Itno of Chad and Tanzania's Jakaya Kikwete -- who have been mediating in the conflict will meet again on Friday in Mauritania for consultations.

"A lot of work still needs to be done," the Mauritanian president had said after the latest round of talks with Gbagbo and Ouattara.

The African Union has backed a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but former mediator Raila Odinga, the Kenyan prime minister, said Wednesday that force would be used if economic sanctions do not result in Gbagbo's ouster.

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