ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Ivory Coast's Alassane Ouattara seized the major cocoa port of San Pedro overnight, continuing an offensive that has seen them take swathes of the country to try to oust leader Laurent Gbagbo.
Residents and combatants from both sides said the pro-Ouattara forces were in control and were patrolling the town, and that it was now largely calm apart from some sporadic shooting.
"We have taken the port of San Pedro. Gbagbo's forces have all left. We are in full control," a military spokesman for Ouattara's forces, Seydou Ouattara, told Reuters.
Resisting pressure from the African Union and the West, Gbagbo has refused to step down since a presidential election last November, which U.N.-certified results showed he lost to Ouattara by an 8-point margin, sparking a deadly power struggle.
"Shooting started at around 9 p.m. (2100 GMT on Wednesday) then we saw the rebels' vehicles drive into the town," said one San Pedro resident, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals. "Everyone's staying indoors, but we're still hearing a lot of gunfire."
San Pedro ships around half the cocoa beans from the world's top cocoa growung nation.
Cocoa prices have fallen about 9 percent since forces loyal to Ouattara began to seize towns in the western cocoa belt this week. The capture of San Pedro could mean a resumption in exports.
The disputed election that was meant to draw a line under the 2002-3 civil war has instead reignited it, as rebels who control the northern half of the country and now back Ouattara advance south into Gbagbo's territory from all sides.
They seized the official capital Yamoussoukro, in the center, on Wednesday, and they have made big advances in the east toward the main city Abidjan, where analysts expect the fiercest battles will be.
Ouattara's prime minister Guillaume Soro told French radio on Wednesday that Gbagbo had hours to leave power peacefully.
At least 472 people have been confirmed killed since the standoff began, according to the United Nations, and a humanitarian crisis is worsening, with a million people displaced from the commercial capital Abidjan alone.
But the real figure is likely to be much higher.
State media has said the rebels are foreigners from neighboring West African states, prompting the killings of many.
Pro-Gbagbo militias killed 37 West African immigrants in a village in the west on March 22, Human Rights Watch said.
"Witnesses in Ivory Coast told Human Rights Watch that armed men, some in uniform and others in civilian clothes, massacred the villagers, presumed to be Ouattara supporters," HRW said, warning that Gbagbo may be guilty of "crimes against humanity."
Thousands of people have sought shelter in churches and public buildings and at least 112,000 have crossed into Liberia to the west.
"All activities have stopped," said San Pedro resident Ibrahim Yao. "(Pro-Ouattara) soldiers came this morning and told us to stay in our homes. They assured us they wouldn't kill us."
Another resident, Guillaume Gnekan, said rebels were patrolling all around town.
The U.N. Security Council imposed travel bans and asset freezes on Gbagbo, who is already under European Union and U.S. sanctions. The resolution also sought to prevent use of heavy weapons in the main city, Abidjan.
Former colonial power France, meanwhile, said pro-Gbagbo forces fired on the French ambassador's convoy in Abidjan on Wednesday.
Until the push south this week, the worst of the violence had centered on Abidjan, where anti-Gbagbo insurgents, who do not necessarily support Ouattara, have seized parts of town.
A Reuters witness heard heavy weapons fire overnight from around Agban, the main paramilitary gendarmerie camp in the city.
In a sign violence could spin out of control, the army called on Gbagbo's often violent youth wing to enlist in the military. They have been fired up with anti-French, anti-foreigner and anti-U.N. propaganda, and on Wednesday the army started openly handing out weapons to them.
They have set up roadblocks all over town and have attacked U.N. staff, Western diplomats and killed several West African immigrants and suspected Ouattara supporters, HRW says.
(Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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