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Fighting Rages in Ivory Coast, 800 dead in West

Ange Aboa and Loucoumane Coulibaly

Forces loyal to Ivorian presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara prepare to advance on the capital Abidjan April 1, 2011. (REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun)

ABIDJAN - Soldiers of Ivory Coast's rival leaders battled for the main city Abidjan on Saturday, clashing by the presidential palace and state TV offices in a conflict so brutal that 800 people have died in one smaller town alone.

Advancing soldiers backing Alassane Ouattara, who U.N.-certified results show won a Nov. 28 presidential election, met stiff resistance from fighters loyal to incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to step down.

State television came back on air after fighting took it down for a day, showing Gbagbo looking relaxed and drinking tea, saying the pictures were from his city residence on Saturday.

A Reuters reporter heard gunfire and explosions from heavy shelling near the presidential palace throughout the morning, and clashes also raged around the office of state broadcaster RTI, still in Gbagbo's hands, and military bases in the city.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said at least 800 people were killed in intercommunal violence in the western Ivorian town of Duekoue this week.

Catholic charity Caritas said scores of people were also missing from the town.

"There were very heavy killings in the wake of the advance of Ouattara's forces last week, and many people may have fled," Caritas official Jean Djoman said by telephone from Abidjan. "We think the total of dead and missing there is about 1,000."

That would bring the confirmed death toll from violence since the disputed election, in which Ouattara was the internationally recognised winner, to around 1,300.

The actual toll is likely to be much higher because the fighting has been so heavy and because forces rarely disclose their own losses or civilians they kill.

Gunbattles and heavy weapons fire rang out across Abidjan as former rebels in the West African country -- the world's top cocoa grower -- pressed an offensive to oust Gbagbo.

Residents said they heard loud explosions near Agban military base, the city's largest, in the Adjame neighbourhood near Cocody where Gbagbo's residence is.

"It is very loud and we're taking shelter in our homes," said Jules Konin, who lives nearby.

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