ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara seized the capital of Ivory Coast and advanced toward the coastal cities of Abidjan and San Pedro on Wednesday, in a dramatic push aimed at toppling incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo.
The head of presidential claimant Ouattara's rival goverment said Gbagbo had just "hours" to leave power peacefully, after months of negotiations aimed at dislodging him in the aftermath of an election late last year failed.
"The time for dialogue and ceasefires is over... (Gbagbo) has a few hours to leave power peacefully," Guillaume Soro, Ouattara's premier, told French radio RFI.
Resisting pressure from the African Union and the West, Gbagbo has refused to step down since the poll last November, which U.N.-certified results showed he lost to Ouattara by an eight-point margin.
At least 472 people have been 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.
Ivory Coast is the world's largest grower of cocoa, and curbs imposed since the conflict began have paralyzed exports, sending futures prices to 30-year highs.
Cocoa futures hit their lowest point in more than two months on Wednesday as advances by Ouattara's troops raised hopes exports could soon resume.
Pro-Ouattara forces now control areas growing about 600,000 tons of cocoa a year, half of national output.
Residents and military sources in Yamoussoukro, which is officially the nation's capital but functions as little more than a presidential retreat, said pro-Ouattara forces had taken control by the end of the afternoon.
"It is the (pro-Ouattara) Republican Forces that control Yamoussoukro," a military source in Gbagbo's camp said. "(Ouattara's forces) are walking through the city."
Several residents confirmed the information and a pro-Gbagbo military source said they had been given the order to pull back toward Abidjan, 215 km (130 miles) to the southeast.
Clashes were reported in the town but it was not clear what had happened to the Republican Guard, a pro-Gbagbo unit that was expected to put up resistance to any Ouattara push.
Another group of pro-Ouattara fighters, largely made up of former rebels who have controlled the north since a 2002-3 civil war, took control of Soubre, the last main town on the road to the cocoa port of San Pedro.
In Abidjan, pro-Gbagbo youths killed seven civilians when they opened fire in a pro-Ouattara neighbourhood of Abidjan, witnesses said. Former colonial power France, meanwhile, said pro-Gbagbo forces had fired on the French ambassador's convoy in Abidjan.
As the fighting has intensified, about 30,000 Ivorians and West African migrants have been forced to seek refuge in an overcrowded Catholic mission in the town of Duekoue with little or no access to food, water or health facilities, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.
Thousands more have sought shelter in public buildings and at least 112,000 have crossed into Liberia to the west.
A Reuters reporter on the road east out of Abidjan said hundreds of cars were clogging roads heading out of the city.
ARMING THE PATRIOTS
Until the push south this week, the worst of the violence had centred on Abidjan, where anti-Gbagbo insurgents, who do not necessarily support Ouattara, have seized parts of town.
A Reuters witness heard heavy weapons fire coming from the area around Agban, the main gendarmerie camp, in the early afternoon. A pro-Gbagbo military source confirmed clashes had taken place but gave no further details.
In a sign violence could become much more widespread, the army called on youths loyal to Gbagbo to enlist in the military.
"The Young Patriots are at army headquarters to pick up weapons to go and fight. They will get a few days of training," an officer at army headquarters said.
Gbagbo's often violent youth wing is considered his most dangerous and unpredictable weapon. Its members have caused mayhem in the past and recently set up roadblocks everywhere, armed with AK-47s, sticks and machetes.
Gbagbo's government on Tuesday called for an immediate ceasefire and the opening of dialogue.
The United Nations Security Council is scheduled to vote on a sanctions resolution against Gbagbo on Wednesday.
By Loucoumane Coulibaly and Ange Aboa