"There is firing from all sides", said one terrified woman reached by telephone in the rebel-held city of Bouake. "The house is shaking".
In the capital Yamoussoukro, 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Bouake, hundreds of young pro-government supporters, some with faces painted white and leaves in their hair like traditional warriors, staged an march, shouting they were ready to "free Bouake." Radical youth groups organised the demonstration. They travelled to Yamoussoukro in about 10 buses from the commercial capital Abidjan early yesterday and were joined by about 1,000 locals. The youths, who call themselves "young patriots", threatened to march today on Bouake. Government troops gathered reinforcements and supplies for their assault, which authorities said would end only when the rebels are beaten. In Yamoussoukro, loyalist troops unloaded boxes of ammunition, including mortar shells and machine-gun rounds, from airplanes, loaded them onto pick-up trucks and sped off.
The government had for days promised an all-out offensive against the rebels who seized half the country after a bloody coup attempt on September 19. The offensive against Bouake, north of the capital, began Sunday, even as West African mediators struggled to save a proposed cease-fire.
The heavy gunfire sent residents of Bouake, a city of half a million, cowering in their homes or fleeing on foot. Government troops riding pick-ups some with mounted guns raced north toward the insurgents. Witnesses saw large numbers of terrified residents fleeing through the lush countryside, heading east from Bouake.
State-run radio, meanwhile, broadcast appeals to "patriotic" Bouake residents to rise up against the rebels and barricade roads.