Battle rages in Ivory Coast
Abidjan - Heavy artillery fire and explosions shook downtown Abidjan Saturday on the third day of a fierce battle for the city, as rival forces were accused of massacring hundreds in western Ivory Coast.
Cornered, but clinging on, strongman Laurent Gbagbo brushed off calls by world leaders to step down amid an offensive by troops backing the internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara in Abidjan.
Reports of carnage meanwhile emerged from the western town of Duekoue where the International Red Cross said 800 died and the UN mission accused fighters from both camps of mass killings.
Gbagbo has been holed up in the presidential palace and residence in Abidjan's chic Cocody district, where several embassies are located.
Walls shook as mortar and other heavy arms fire broke out at 12:15 GMT near the presidential palace, AFP journalists said.
Ouattara's government declared a curfew from midnight on Saturday until 06:00 on Sunday.
Ouattara's offensive 'not yet begun'
While Gbagbo's camp claimed to have pushed back an assault Friday, Ouattara's fighters warned that the offensive "has not yet begun".
"We are taking steps to weaken the enemy before mounting an assault," said Captain Leon Kouakou Alla, spokesperson for Ouattara's defence ministry.
Weary with failed diplomatic efforts to resolve a post-election crisis, Ouattara's army on Monday launched a lightning offensive across the country before arriving in Abidjan on Thursday.
Fierce fighting accompanied by loud explosions and bursts of machine-gun fire sent residents of the city of five million people into lockdown, and some 1 400 foreigners sought refuge at a French military camp.
State television RTI, briefly captured by Ouattara's army, was back on air Saturday.
In a brief, haphazard newscast, a soldier, accompanied by a dozen other members of Gbagbo's Defence and Security Forces (FDS), read a statement urging "all the staff of the armed forces" to join five units located in Abidjan.
As the violence escalated in the world's top cocoa producer, both camps have been accused of atrocities that rights groups say may amount to crimes against humanity.
Hundreds of bodies
Hundreds of bodies were discovered in the wake of a fierce battle for the town of Duekoue in the west, with accusations flying as to who is responsible.
The UN mission in Ivory Coast (UNOCI) reported "330 people killed between Monday and Wednesday... the majority were executed by 'dozos'," said Guillaume N'gefa of the UNOCI human rights division, referring to traditional hunters fighting with Ouattara's camp.
He said that among these more than a hundred were also killed by pro-Gbagbo forces.
A spokesman for the pro-Ouattara Republican Forces, Seydou Ouattara, said they had killed "militia and not civilians" and sought to distance the forces from the dozos.
"Militiamen are not civilians. From the moment they are armed, they are considered combatants. We must avoid all confusion," he told AFP.
"The 'dozos' are a caste of hunters who have plantations in the west. They are also civilians who took up arms to defend their community. They are not members of the Republican Forces, but sympathisers," he said.
Ouattara's government also reported numerous mass graves had been found, "especially in Toulepleu, Blolequin and Guiglo, whose authors are none other than the loyal forces, mercenaries and militias of Laurent Gbagbo."
A spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva, Dorothea Krimitsas, told AFP information gathered by Red Cross workers showed "at least 800 people were killed in Duekoue on Tuesday" in what appeared to be inter-ethnic violence.
"There is no doubt that something on a large scale took place in this city," she said, adding that Red Cross workers had "themselves seen a very large number of bodies".
Several hundred people have been killed in the aftermath of the presidential election in November, and the UN estimates a million people have fled Abidjan in recent weeks fearing a bloodbath.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Saturday he was "gravely concerned by the violence."
"I call on all sides to exercise restraint, and condemn the looting and lawlessness reported in Abidjan."
Former colonial master France, which has 12 200 nationals in Ivory Coast, has urged Gbagbo to quit power as have the United States, the European Union, the African Union and the United Nations.