A first group of foreigners fleeing chaos in Ivory Coast was evacuated as the French army took over the airport in Abidjan, wracked by fighting and looting as two presidents tussle for power.
Internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara's camp announced the time was ripe for a rapid offensive in the capital, where it has effectively cornered strongman Laurent Gbagbo, leading to four days of fierce fighting.
As the rival leaders, caught in a stand off since disputed November elections, blame each other for chilling massacres in the west, UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Sunday demanded Ouattara take action against followers who may have taken part.
|French military mission in Ivory Coast soldiers (Licorn) patrol a street in Abidjan|
In a telephone conversation with Ouattara, Ban expressed "concern and alarm" over reports of the killings in the town of Duekoue, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
Ouattara denied his followers were involved in the killings but said he had ordered an investigation, Nesirky said.
Gbagbo's spokesman in Paris, Toussaint Alain, also denied his troops had played any role in the massacres.
"This entire area is 90 percent controlled by the rebellion which bears the responsibility for this massacre," he said.
With a final showdown awaited between the rival armies, the French Licorne (Unicorn) force took control of the airport in the main city Abidjan and Paris sent 300 more men to the city as more than 1,500 foreigners sought refuge at a French military camp.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday spoke three times with Ouattara, the presidency said, adding he had ordered "bringing together without delay all French citizens in Abidjan... to ensure their protection".
The French military meanwhile said 167 foreigners, including French and Lebanese nationals, left Abidjan Sunday for the Senegalese capital Dakar on a special flight.
While Sunday was quieter than the three preceding days of the Ouattara offensive, sporadic heavy arms fire continued near Gbagbo strongholds such as the presidential palace while the strongman's whereabouts were unknown.
"The strategy was to surround the city of Abidjan, which we have succeeded in doing. We have sent soldiers to the centre of town to harass Gbagbo's troops, militia and mercenaries," said Ouattara's prime minister Guillaume Soro on Ouattara's television station TCI.
"We have noticed that following this harassment there is a generalised panic among Gbagbo's troops. The situation is now ripe for a rapid offensive. Don't worry," he said.
Gbagbo meanwhile showed no signs of wavering, scoring a coup as his army chief of staff General Philippe Mangou seemed set to rejoin his side after seeking refuge in the South African ambassador's residence earlier this week.
A diplomatic source confirmed Mangou left the residence, and Gbagbo's spokesman Ahoua Don Mello said Mangou had met with the strongman, and it was not sure if he would take up his old position.
"I saw him today at the residence of President Gbagbo with his colleagues. He will speak himself, maybe tomorrow (Monday)."
Ouattara-controlled television ran a ticker across the screen saying Mangou's return was due to his family being threatened by Gbagbo's camp.
Gbagbo-controlled state television broadcast virulently anti-French messages.
"A Rwandan genocide is being prepared in Ivory Coast by Sarkozy's men," read a ticker running across the screen, referring to the 1994 massacre of 800,000 in Rwanda in just three months.
"The French army has occupied the Felix Houphouet-Boigny airport, we are in danger," read another.
The RTI television station, a vital means of communication between Gbagbo and his loyalists, was briefly captured by pro-Ouattara fighters on Thursday night before Gbagbo troops regained control and restored the signal.
Messages on the station have urged civilians to form a "human shield" around Gbagbo's residence.
Weary of failed diplomatic efforts to resolve the post-election crisis, Ouattara's army has seized much of the country, and reports have emerged of massacres in the west from aid groups and the United Nations.
The International Red Cross has said 800 died in Duekoue in one day in an incident "particularly shocking by its size and brutality".
The Catholic mission Caritas reported 1,000 were "killed or disappeared" while the UN mission gave an initial death toll of 330, saying that while both camps were involved in the mass killings, the majority of deaths were caused by pro-Ouattara fighters.
Sidiki Konate, the spokesman for Ouattara's prime minister Soro, said his army counted 152 bodies, and not the massive toll alleged.