ABIDJAN // Ivory Coast's internationally-recognised leader Alassane Ouattara is poised to launch a final push in Abidjan to defeat his cornered rival, a top official said yesterday as both sides deny committing atrocities.
The United Nations has sent an envoy to probe allegations of human-rights abuses in the wake of the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the western town of Duekoue.
In the economic capital Abidjan, fighting has abated since Ouattara troops first besieged the city five days ago, but his camp has said the time is ripe for a rapid offensive against Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to acknowledge that he lost November elections and is fighting to the last.
"The strategy was to surround the city of Abidjan, which we have succeeded in doing. We have sent soldiers to the centre of town to harass Gbagbo's troops, militia and mercenaries," said Ouattara's prime minister, Guillaume Soro, on Mr Ouattara's television station TCI.
"We have noticed that following this harassment there is a generalized panic among Mr Gbagbo's troops. The situation is now ripe for a rapid offensive," he said.
Weakened by the desertion of key allies and isolated by the international community when the battle for Abidjan began, Mr Gbagbo has clawed his way back, managing to repulse the attacks on his strongholds.
He has rallied supporters to form a "human shield" around his residence, and received a boost on Sunday when the army chief, General Philippe Mangou, who deserted the cause last week, left his refuge at the South African ambassador's home and met with him at his residence in an apparent change of heart.
As residents of the city of five million remain in lockdown in their homes as armed men patrol the streets, hundreds of foreigners have sought refuge at the French military camp and have started being flown out.
The French Licorne (Unicorn) force took control of the airport in Abidjan and French President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered "bringing together without delay all French citizens in Abidjan... to ensure their protection".
The French military meanwhile said 167 foreigners, including French and Lebanese nationals, left Abidjan on Sunday for the Senegalese capital Dakar on a special flight.
A final showdown is expected between rival forces after a four month stand-off following the elections as Mr Gbagbo, in power since 2000, refuses to step down despite having lost.
Weary of failed diplomatic efforts to resolve the post-election crisis, Mr Ouattara's army launched a lightning offensive, seizing much of the country, and reports are now emerging of brutal massacres in the west.
The United Nations assistant secretary general for human rights Ivan Simonovic arrived on Sunday to probe the accusations.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Sunday demanded Mr Ouattara take action against followers who may have taken part in mass killings.
In a telephone conversation with Mr Ouattara, Mr Ban expressed "concern and alarm" over reports of the killings in the town of Duekoue, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
Mr Ouattara denied his followers were involved in the killings but said he had ordered an investigation, Mr Nesirky said.
Mr Gbagbo's spokesman in Paris, Toussaint Alain, also denied his troops had played any role in the massacres.
"This entire area is 90 per cent controlled by the rebellion which bears the responsibility for this massacre," he said.
The International Red Cross has said 800 died in Duekoue in one day in an incident "particularly shocking by its size and brutality".
The Catholic mission Caritas reported 1,000 were "killed or disappeared" while the UN mission gave an initial death toll of 330, saying that while both camps were involved in the mass killings, the majority of deaths were caused by pro-Ouattara fighters.
Sidiki Konate, the spokesman for Mr Ouattara's prime minister Soro, said his army counted 152 bodies, and not the massive toll alleged.