Fighters loyal to Alassane Ouattara took control of the large cocoa-exporting port city of San Pedro early Thursday, less than a day after seizing the administrative capital of Yamoussoukro.
Mr. Ouattara's forces appear to be consolidating their gains as they move toward the commercial capital Abidjan, the last stronghold of incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo.
Meanwhile, South Africa's foreign ministry reported Thursday that Mr. Gbagbo's army chief is seeking refuge at the Abidjan home of the South African ambassador.
The latest developments could mark the beginning of the end for strongman Laurent Gbagbo, who first rose to power a decade ago. Ivory Coast has teetered on the brink of civil war since its November presidential elections, when Mr. Gbagbo refused to concede to his challenger and the United Nations-certified winner, Alassane Ouattara.
International Crisis Group West Africa analyst Rinaldo Depagne says Mr. Gbagbo appears to be on his last legs.
Laurent Gbagbo (File)
“Gbagbo is absolutely, military speaking, overwhelmed. His army is out of the game," said Depagne. "Perhaps he has a few soldiers remaining defending the presidency, but, well, he's militarily speaking, he's naked.”
Depagne thinks the battle for Abidjan is imminent.
“They are currently 100 kilometers northeast from Abidjan, and if Mr. Gbagbo doesn't step down in the coming days or even hours, Abidjan may be under attack tomorrow morning or afternoon,”Depagne said.
Sporadic fighting was reported around Abidjan Thursday afternoon, and many extra checkpoints were set up in anticipation of the coming assault.
The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday slapped additional sanctions against Gbagbo and his inner circle in its latest bid to get him to step down. Co-sponsor of the resolution and Nigerian Ambassador Joy Ogwu said the sanctions were necessary due to increasing attacks on civilians.
“Not only are civilians suffering from indiscriminate attacks, but there is mounting evidence that they're also being specifically targeted," Ogwu said. "The fact that the violence is beginning to take on ethnic and sectarian overtones is an indication of the risk of a relapse to a recent state of civil war in Cote d'Ivoire.”
Senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in West Africa, Corinne Dufka, says her group is concerned about the potential for mass atrocities.
“It's a very, very, vulnerable situation right now with the Ouattara forces pressing in on the capital, and with the recent recruitment of many, many militiamen who have proven themselves to be undisciplined and very readily target civilians,” said Dufka.
Dufka called on the U.N. and French peacekeepers to do all they can to protect vulnerable civilians in Abidjan over the next few days.
The U.N. says up to one million people have already fled the fighting in Abidjan, and food is becoming scarce as civilians stock up on provisions.