JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the fighting in the West African nation of Ivory Coast intensified this week. Supporters of the internationally-recognized president, Alassane Ouattara, seized control of key cities.
Margaret Warner has our report.
MARGARET WARNER: Fighters trying to install the democratically-elected Ouattara began besieging the main city of Abidjan today, the last major stronghold of his rival.
In a televised speech today from his hideout, Alassane Ouattara said his forces were fighting to restore democracy and ensure the people's vote is respected.
The struggle between Ouattara and incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo has been raging for four months, ever since voters in the former French colony known as Cote d'Ivoire decisively voted for Ouattara in the Nov. 28 election. He was recognized as president by the U.N., the United States, and the European and African Unions, but Gbagbo refused to leave.
Ouattara's been staying in a U.N.-protected hotel in Abidjan while incumbent Gbagbo held his own inauguration ceremony in December and remains in the presidential palace.
As negotiations flagged, the struggle turned violent, with pro-Gbagbo forces attacking pro-Ouattara civilian neighborhoods, and even attacking U.N. peacekeepers. Nearly 500 people have died so far, and the U.N. says as many as one million people have fled their homes, some to nearby countries.
But this week, the momentum shifted. Forces loyal to Ouattara have taken 12 cities and towns since Monday, including the political capital of Yamoussoukro and the port of San Pedro, before taking the fight to the commercial capital, Abidjan, today.
JENNIFER COOKE, Center for Strategic and International Studies: The last week has seen a dramatic deterioration of the security situation. If it weren't for the numbers of those killed, I think we'd call this a civil war, essentially.
MARGARET WARNER: Jennifer Cooke is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
JENNIFER COOKE: It's very hard to see how -- how the country is going to pull back from this escalation. This could turn out to be very ugly and protracted.
MARGARET WARNER: Will Gbagbo fight to the death, no matter how bloody it gets?
JENNIFER COOKE: I think Gbagbo probably would at this point fight to the death. He has no other good options.
MARGARET WARNER: Today, Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson suggested, Gbagbo did still have the chance to leave.
JOHNNIE CARSON, assistant secretary of state: There is still an opportunity for Gbagbo to step aside in a fashion which will prevent widespread bloodshed and a difficult fight in Abidjan for power. We hope that he will see and seize this opportunity to step aside peacefully and encourage his supporters to lay down their arms and not to engage in urban conflict.
MARGARET WARNER: So far, Gbagbo's shown no sign of relenting. So, the key to resolving this is the Ivorian military. Will its leadership stick with Gbagbo, or will they abandon him?
CHRISTOPHER FOMUNYOH, National Democratic Institute: My hope is that we don't get to a point where there's full-blown civil war. I am also hoping that, as the pro-Ouattara forces continue to gain momentum, that a lot of the military that has supported Laurent Gbagbo in the past will pause and ask themselves the question whether its worth fighting for a cause that is a lost cause.
MARGARET WARNER: Christopher Fomunyoh, senior Africa associate at the National Democratic Institute, says the threat of prosecution from the international community may sway them.
CHRISTOPHER FOMUNYOH: Various officers even within the military would have to pause and ask themselves whether they would want to be held accountable for gross violations of human rights or for helping ignite civil war in a country such as Cote d'Ivoire.
MARGARET WARNER: Today, the army's top commander did flee his post, seeking refuge in the South African Embassy. And Ouattara urged others to follow him.
ALASSANE OUATTARA, Ivory Coast president-elect (through translator): To all those who are hesitating, whether you are generals, superior officers, officers, subofficers, rank-and-file, there is still time to join your brothers in arms.
MARGARET WARNER: The U.N. is trying to increase the pressure, too. Yesterday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously imposed further sanction on Gbagbo's government and leaders.
JOY OGWU, Nigerian ambassador to the United Nations: And we're satisfied that all member states are together in one voice, in one accord, calling for specific sanctions, targeted sanctions against Gbagbo. For us, we believe that the die is cast, and this will present sufficient pressure on Gbagbo to step down.
MARGARET WARNER: But Jennifer Cooke says international pressure may not be enough.
JENNIFER COOKE: Unfortunately, for all that good intention and the good action, Gbagbo, if he wishes to stay in power and cares nothing for the future of the country can do that. If he's willing to bring the country down around him, he can do that. And there's very little that the international community can do, short of a military intervention, which nobody has really been willing to countenance so far.
MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, the Ivorian people are suffering. All major banks closed their doors in February, leaving businesses and citizens without access to their money.
Once an economic powerhouse and a major world cocoa producer, Ivory Coast was seen as an African success story. But after two decades of unrest, coups and a 2002 civil war, the current crisis, born of hopes for a democratic election, is dealing this small African nation a cruel blow.