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Clash in Ivory Coast over holdout leader

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Gunfire erupted in Ivory Coast's main city yesterday morning just blocks from the presidential palace as fighters loyal to the internationally recognized president sought to remove the incumbent who refuses to cede power.

Rebels loyal to internationally recognized President Alassane Ouattara made a lightning advance through the country last week, seizing the administrative capital on Wednesday before heading to Abidjan, the country's largest city.

Incumbent Laurent Gbagbo has rejected calls to step down. His aides said Friday they would never give in, even though nearly 80 percent of the country and now large swathes of Abidjan were controlled by fighters loyal to Ouattara.

Gbagbo, 65, has not been seen in public since the offensive began, but those in his inner circle said Friday he was still in Abidjan and would fight until the end.

Ouattara has ordered land and sea borders closed to seal all possible exits in case Gbagbo attempts to flee.

Ouattara's victory, with 54 percent of the vote, in November was recognized first by the country's electoral commission, then by the United Nations and governments worldwide.

U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have made personal appeals to Gbagbo to step down.

For most of the standoff, it was Gbagbo's security forces that committed abuses against civilians, according to visits to local morgues by The Associated Press, eyewitness reports by AP reporters and photographers, and interviews with Ivorians and human rights officials.

Those reports bolstered Ouattara's international stature, and his supporters only recently started to arm themselves and fight back.

That could change now that Ouattara has accepted help from a northern-based rebel group, whose members make up the majority of the fighters assaulting Abidjan.

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