UN warns of an impending civil war in Ivory Coast

Heavy fighting over the disputed election may augur a return to civil war, the United Nations warned yesterday as clashes raged in Abidjan and in western regions of the country.

Residents reported automatic arms fire yesterday morning in the Abobo district of Abidjan, the commercial capital, after three days of heavy fighting between police forces loyal to incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power, and a force calling itself the "invisible commandos", believed to include former rebels.

Hundreds of people fled Abobo on the main road leading from the neighbourhood, some pushing wooden carts, others with their possessions wrapped in sheets.

Fighting also broke out in the west of the country near the border with Liberia and Guinea, the local UN peacekeeping mission reported. "This is a breach of the cease-fire that has been holding for the last six years," said spokesman Hamadoun Toure. "It changes the game. Before it was clashes between police and protesters. Now if its the beginning of fighting between two armed forces, it could have serious consequences for the country."

It is a significant escalation in the country's political crisis that erupted after Mr Gbagbo refused to accept defeat in the presidential election on 28 November, despite UN-certified results that show he lost to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.