Top West African mediators were today travelling into the heart of Ivory Coast’s rebel-held territory to deliver a ceasefire offer from the government.
Hundreds of people have died since a bloody uprising was launched 16 days ago. President Laurent Gbagbo’s government now controls about half the country.
“We are going to talk to see if we can end this as quickly as possible,” said Mohamed Ibn Chambas, secretary-general of the West African economic bloc that is pushing for peace.
French troops were planning to fly the delegates from Ghana, Togo, Guinea-Bissau, Niger, Nigeria and Mali to the rebel-held city of Bouake.
Regional leaders are desperate to stop Ivory Coast, long an anchor of stability in the region, from following neighbours Sierra Leone and Liberia down the path to full-scale civil war.
Half-a-million people in Bouake have been struggling for two weeks without water, electricity and fuel. Food is also running low.
After grabbing Bouake and Korhogo, the well-armed and well-disciplined insurgents have since spread north and west, taking towns including Odienne and Seguela.
Their ultimate goal is Abidjan, once known as the Paris of West Africa for its chic boutiques and expensive restaurants.
Only a formidable French military presence in Yamoussoukro, capital of the former French colony, is blocking their drive south.
Witnesses have reported long range exchanges of fire between French troops and rebel forces near Yamoussoukro.
French Lieutenant Colonel Ange-Antoine Leccia did not confirm the reports, but said: “When we are tested, we respond.”
And as the peace mission, sent by the Economic Community of West African States tried to find a peaceful way out of the crisis, tens of thousands of government supporters thronged the streets of Abidjan, calling for action and promising to liberate Bouake themselves.