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Fighting Spreads as Ivory Coast Ceasefire Collapses

People stand next to stores set on fire during clashes between supporters of Alassane Dramane Ouattara and soldiers of the FDS, loyal to outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo, in the Attecoube neighborhood, in Abidjan on February 24, 2011.

Ivory Coast is moving closer to a return to civil war with the collapse of a ceasefire in western provinces and the spread of fighting in the commercial capital, Abidjan. The incumbent president's youth leader is calling for Friday rally against United Nations peacekeepers.

The United Nations says a six-year ceasefire in Ivory Coast has been broken by fighting between rebels and government troops near the border with Liberia.

It is not known how many people were killed in Thursday's fighting in the western commune of Zouan-Hounien. But the area is part of a so-called "confidence zone" that has separated the two sides since the end of a brief civil war in 2003. So fighting there marks a substantial escalation of the political crisis that has followed November's presidential vote.

Incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and former prime minister Alassane Ouattara both claim to have won that vote and have both established rival governments in Abidjan.

Mr. Gbagbo is backed by the national army. Mr. Ouattara is backed by former rebels who still control northern provinces and are stepping up military operations not only in the west but also in Abidjan.

Gunmen allied to Mr. Ouattara say they ambushed a convoy of government soldiers in Abidjan this week. Fighting that has been concentrated largely in the pro-Ouattara Abobo neighborhood spread north Thursday to the Atte Coube neighborhood where government troops burned shops that they said were hiding weapons. Ouattara supporters responded by burning a petrol station.

Hundreds of civilians are fleeing the fighting in Abidjan. The United Nations is urging both sides to show restraint amid efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.

African Union heads of state this week met separately with both Mr. Gbagbo and Mr. Ouattara and now have until Monday to make what the African Union says will be a legally binding decision on how to resolve the conflict.

But with no means to enforce its decision, African Union mediation appears increasingly irrelevant as violence in Ivory Coast escalates. Gbagbo youth leader Charles Ble Goude is calling for a rally Friday in an Abidjan neighborhood that is divided between Gbagbo and Ouattara supporters.

Goude says the African Union has decided on negotiation while the United Nations is organizing war. He says U.N. peacekeepers are backing rebels who support Mr. Ouattara, so all of them should leave Ivory Coast. Enough is enough, Goude says, Gbagbo supporters are ready to die to prevent rebels and the United Nations from dragging the county down.