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Fighting erupts in Ivory Coast

Heavy fighting has broken out near Ivory Coast's border with Liberia between forces backing political rivals who both claim to be Ivorian president, panicking tens of thousands of refugees who had already fled the violence.

Saah Nyuma, the deputy director of the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission, said he heard the sounds of explosions coming from Ivory Coast, with at least one mortar shell falling on the Liberian side of the border on Sunday.

A fighter who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals said the violence was taking place in the border village of Toulepleu.

Analysts fear that Ivory Coast's political crisis following the disputed presidential election will spill over into full-blown civil war - nearly 400 people have been killed since the November 28 vote, according to the UN and Associated Press.

The UN refugee body says more than 200,000 people have fled fighting in the main city of Abidjan in the last week, and more than 70,000 have crossed the border into Liberia to avoid fighting in the country's west.

The UN declared Alassane Ouattara the winner of the election, but sitting president Laurent Gbagbo refuses to cede power after more than a decade in office. His security forces are accused of abducting, torturing and killing political opponents.

Over the weekend, gangs of young people aided by uniformed police ransacked at least 10 houses in Abidjan belonging to officials allied with Mr Ouattara.

"They're trying to install an atmosphere of terror," said top Ouattara adviser Amadou Coulibaly. "But you can't do more than what they've already done - firing on unarmed women. They're getting desperate."

Governments around the world swiftly condemned last Thursday's killings of six female demonstrators.

Foreign Office Minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, said he was "deeply concerned" about the deteriorating security situation in Ivory Coast and was "appalled" to hear that women were killed during a peaceful demonstration.

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