France ordered more troops into Ivory Coast to protect civilians on Monday as forces backing presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara prepared a "lightning" assault to remove Laurent Gbagbo from power.
As hundreds of pro-Ouattara soldiers gathered on the outskirts of Abidjan, waiting to launch what they say will be the final assault to unseat Gbagbo, explosions could be heard from the direction of the presidential palace.
Gbagbo has refused to cede power after a disputed Nov. 28 election which United Nations-certified results showed Ouattara won, but Gbagbo rejected the results and accused the UN of bias. The political standoff that followed has now turned into a resumption of the civil war of 2002-03.
After swiftly taking control of most of the country, pro-Ouattara forces have met fierce resistance in Abidjan where Gbagbo's troops are holding on to positions around the presidential palace, Gbagbo's residence, and state television.
Sunday saw less intense fighting than the previous three days, with sporadic gunfire and explosions in several neighbourhoods. Nervous citizens ventured out to get food and water on Monday morning after being holed up at home because of the fighting.
Speaking on Sunday on the pro-Ouattara TCI television channel, Ouattara's prime minister Guillaume Soro said their strategy had been to encircle the city, harass Gbagbo's troops and gather intelligence on their arsenal.
"The situation is now ripe for a lightning offensive," which he said would come any time soon.
France said on Monday it was sending an extra 150 soldiers from the West African nation of Gabon to help protect civilians in Ivory Coast.
The deployment brings the number of French troops in Ivory Coast to 1,650. France has about 12,000 nationals in Ivory Coast and the French military contingent has already mounted patrols in Abidjan and taken control of the airport.
It had been expected that Ouattara's forces would quickly overrun Gbagbo's troops following defection by high ranking officers, but they have manage to withstand the assault so far and regain control of the state broadcaster RTI.
Through the television channel, they have broadcast virulent anti-French and anti-UN messages, while rallying support from Gbagbo's youth wing, the Young Patriots, who have formed a human chain around Gbagbo's residence and presidential palace.
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A Reuters reporter saw scores of Young Patriots gather by the lagoon near the palace with plastic buckets and bottles to collect water, guarded by jumpy soldiers brandishing AK-47s.
Gbagbo's camp has also received a potential morale booster with the return of army chief General Philippe Mangou, who had sought refuge at the residence of the South African ambassador on Wednesday as pro-Ouattara troops advanced on Abidjan.
More than 1,500 people have been killed since the violence began five months ago.
The ICRC said it stuck by an estimate of 800 killed in the western town of Duekoue alone in intercommunal violence in one day last week, which Ouattara's camp has said was "exaggerated".
"Two members of our staff went there and gathered consistent testimony. Our colleagues saw hundreds of bodies with their own eyes," ICRC spokesman Steven Anderson told Reuters.
African Union secretary general Jean Ping urged both sides to "show restraint and protect civilians."
He hoped for "a swift resolution of the crisis and for President Ouattara to take up the office to which he has been democratically elected".
Ivory Coast's $2.3 billion 2032 bond, on which it defaulted at the end of January, fell as much as 1.7 points on Monday, reversing some of last week's gains as the market nervously eye the standoff which some fear may become prolonged.
Cocoa prices rose by 1.3 percent to $3,049 per tonne on Monday morning as hopes faded for a speedy resolution of the crisis that would free up exports.