ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Fighters supporting Ivory Coast's internationally recognized leader seized control of the country's administrative capital on Wednesday, marking a symbolic victory after months of political chaos sparked when the incumbent refused to step down after an election.
The fall of Yamoussoukro caps a dramatic advance on the city from multiple directions this week, but many believe a final bloody battle over the presidency is now destined for the commercial capital of Abidjan, only 143 miles (230 kilometers) away.
Capt. Leon Alla, a defense spokesman for the internationally backed leader Alassane Ouattara, confirmed to The Associated Press on Wednesday that "the town of Yamoussoukro is in the hands of the Republican Forces."
With the sounds of gunshots cracking over the telephone line, a woman at the downtown Hotel La Residence said the rebel group loyal to Ouattara was doing a victory tour, shooting into the air. Residents came out into the streets to welcome them, she said.
The woman, who would not give her name for fear of reprisals, said soldiers and police had fled hours before the rebels arrived. When the rebels first entered the city center, there were cries of alarm, she said, but those turned to shouts of joy and whistles of approval when the rebel forces were recognized.
"Blitzkrieg seems to be the strategy, rather than fighting to clear every inch and hamlet," said Christian Bock, senior security analyst at Avascent International. "It will take an enormous amount of restraint to hold these forces back from moving onto Abidjan."
Alla said the forces hoped for a similar lack of resistance upon reaching the country's largest city, which is divided into neighborhoods backing Ouattara and others supporting incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo.
"Abidjan will be the same thing," he told the AP. "We'll enter without firing a shot because no FDS (pro-Gbagbo) soldier wants to die for Gbagbo."
But there was fighting Wednesday morning when forces loyal to Gbagbo tried to fight off the rebels for 3 1/2 hours before fleeing Tiebissou, a town 21 miles (35 kilometers) from Yamoussoukro, according to a priest reached there by telephone. Another priest said he saw the bodies of three dead soldiers. People were looting public buildings in Tiebissou, they said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The medical director of Bouake, the rebel-held city further north, said he treated 15 wounded Wednesday from the fighting at Tiebissou and several civilians shot by Gbagbo militiamen.
"They were on a bus, all civilians, riding from Yamoussoukro to Bouake and the militia just sprayed the bus with gunfire," he said, quoting victims.
The international community and Ivory Coast's electoral commission say Ouattara won the November presidential election, but Gbagbo has refused to give up power after a decade in office. Up to 1 million people have fled the fighting caused by political chaos and at least 462 people have been killed since the election.
The two men have vied for the presidency for months, but the rebels launched a dramatic offensive this week, seizing control of a dozen towns since Monday alone.
The rebels advanced on three fronts: in the west, center and east of the country. The west and central columns have converged on Yamoussoukro and may join the eastern front, which is heading directly for Abidjan.
Along Ivory Coast's eastern border with Ghana, the rebels secured Bondoukou and Abengourou Tuesday and got as far as Akoupe, which is only 70 miles (113 kilometers) from Gbagbo's seat of power in Abidjan.
As the rebels advanced, a Gbagbo spokesman called for a cease-fire and mediation. Spokesman Don Mello told Radio France Internationale the army has adopted a strategy of tactical withdrawal. He warned, however, that Gbagbo's forces could use their "legitimate right of defense."
A statement read on state television Tuesday night said the thousands of youth who enlisted in Gbagbo's army last week would be called up for service starting Wednesday.
Asked about the cease-fire offer, a Ouattara's party said it was necessary to resort to legitimate force.
The party said in a statement late Tuesday that "all peaceful avenues to convince Laurent Gbagbo of his defeat have been exhausted."
The Vatican announced that it was sending a representative to Ivory Coast Wednesday to encourage a peaceful reconciliation to the conflict.
The U.N. Security Council is planning to vote on Wednesday on a resolution demanding an immediate end to the growing violence in Ivory Coast and imposing new sanctions on Gbagbo and his inner circle.
Stephane Crouzat, spokesman for France's U.N. Mission, which circulated the sanctions resolution last Friday with Nigeria, said the final text would be put to a vote at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT).
The final draft, obtained by The Associated Press, urges Gbagbo to immediately step aside and all Ivorian parties to recognize the election of Alassane Ouattara as president.
It also calls on the U.N. peacekeeping force "to use all necessary means ... to prevent the use of heavy weapons against the civilian population."
Ouattara, who is from northern Ivory Coast, had long tried to distance himself from the rebels based there who fought in a brief civil war almost a decade ago that left the country split in two. However, rebels have been stepping up their offensive to install him in power in recent weeks.
While moving on Yamoussoukro and Abidjan, the rebels have also been advancing toward the seaport of San Pedro.
Bock, who led the US government team to demobilize rebels in neighboring Liberia, said San Pedro is a key objective for Ouattara, because it will allow him to export cocoa and lumber.
But many believe the final battle will take place in the commercial capital of Abidjan, which is split into pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara neighborhoods.
Fighting in these areas has been almost daily, with mortars and machine guns being used against civilians. In the past several weeks, fighters loyal to Ouattara have taken effective control of several northern districts in the city.
Sustained gunfire could be heard in Abidjan's city center Wednesday afternoon after witnesses reported a column of pro-Gbagbo police heading north in armored cars.
The French government on Wednesday condemned Gbagbo's forces for firing on a car carrying the French ambassador. The government did not report any injuries in the incident.
Armed youth who guard nightly barricades around town have started to keep them running during the day.