Lacina Traore, Wilfried Bony and Yaya Toure scored in Gambia for the Ivorians, keeping Africa's top-ranked team in control of Group C and on course for a place in the decisive five final playoffs as one of 10 qualifying group winners.
In Group A, Ethiopia's run continued with a 2-1 win in Botswana to stay two points ahead of 2010 host South Africa and a step closer to a first appearance at the World Cup in Brazil next year. South Africa beat Central African Republic 3-0 in neutral Cameroon, but has just two games left in the group stage to overhaul a two-point deficit.
Africa's only quarterfinalist at the last World Cup, Ghana also is in danger of missing out following Zambia's 4-0 win over Lesotho — which kept the 2012 African Cup champion a point ahead of the Black Stars, who won 3-1 in Sudan on Friday.
Tunisia was held 2-2 in Sierra Leone, coming back from 1-0 and 2-1 down with Fakhreddine Ben Youssef's 90th-minute equalizer in Freetown. That still left the Tunisians with a four-point lead atop Group B and in pole position for the all-or-nothing playoffs after Cape Verde's 2-1 win over Equatorial Guinea.
Republic of Congo is the surprise leader of Group E, holding a six-point advantage after drawing 0-0 in Gabon ahead of African Cup of Nations finalist Burkina Faso's meeting with Niger on Sunday. And Senegal heads a now-tight Group J after giving up an early lead against Angola via striker Papiss Cisse to draw 1-1. Uganda beat Liberia 1-0 to close within a point of the Senegalese.
Ivory Coast cruised past Gambia for a third win out of four in its group, with midfielder Toure capping a smooth display with his late goal. Closest challenger Tanzania is in Morocco later Saturday.
South Africa overcame a grueling 36-hour trip to Yaounde after travel problems to beat Central African Republic with goals by Bernard Parker, Siphiwe Tshabalala and Katlego Mphela. But the Ethiopians, who returned to the African Cup after a long absence this year, maintained their push for an historic World Cup appearance with victory in Gaborone. Ethiopia and South Africa meet in the crucial next round.
Jacob Mulenga had a brace for Zambia, which has also never been to the World Cup. Ghana kept up the chase with the help of a brace from striker Asamoah Gyan in Sudan.
Tunisia's hopes were boosted with Cape Verde's victory over Equatorial Guinea, preventing the former African Cup host from closing the gap on the North Africans. Republic of Congo is also closing in on the playoffs along with Senegal.
Libya drew with Congo in Tripoli in Group I on Friday, leaving Cameroon with the opportunity to go three points clear if it beats a struggling Togo team on Sunday.
African champion Nigeria beat Kenya on Wednesday to open a two-point in Group F, while Egypt can stamp home its dominance in Group G if it beats bottom-place Zimbabwe in Harare on Sunday.
Algeria and Mali are level on six points at the top of Group H ahead of their games on +Sunday against Benin and Rwanda respectively. Africa's qualifying competition will then move straight to its penultimate round of group games next week.
Follow Gerald Imray at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP