Paris: Ivory Coast's Gbagbo Negotiating His Surrender, Crisis May End within Hours
Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo hunkered down in a bunker at his home Tuesday after being cornered by his arch rival's followers, as his own forces silenced their weapons and asked for a ceasefire.
Having resisted calls to cede power to internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara for four months, Gbagbo was now trying to strike a deal to quit, according to the former colonial power France.
"We are today I hope on the brink of convincing Mr. Gbagbo to leave power and let Alassane Ouattara exercise" power, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
As events rapidly unfolded in the economic capital Abidjan, United Nations mission UNOCI said Gbagbo’s closest advisers, both military and civilian, had deserted him.
"With a handful of persons, he is known to have retreated to the basement bunker of the presidential residence," read a UNOCI statement.
Fierce fighting has rocked Abidjan for two days since Ouattara's fighters launched a "final assault" to remove Gbagbo while French and U.N. helicopters attacked his barracks and the palace to take out heavy weapons on Monday.
UNOCI received three separate telephone calls early Tuesday from leaders of pro-Gbagbo forces, saying orders were being given to stop fighting.
One of them, Gbagbo's army chief General Philippe Mangou, told Agence France Presse his troops had stopped fighting against Ouattara's forces.
"Following the bombardment by the French forces on some of our positions and certain strategic points in the city of Abidjan, we have ourselves stopped fighting and have asked the general commanding ONUCI (the U.N. force) for a ceasefire," Mangou said.
This would allow for the "protection of the population, soldiers, the Republican Guard ensuring the president's security, the president himself and his family, and members of government," he added.
The U.N. mission said its troops had been ordered to offer protection to members of Gbagbo's army who have laid down their arms.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said the crisis sparked by last November's disputed presidential election could be over in hours.
Earlier Ouattara-appointed ambassador to France, Ally Coulibaly told French radio RFI: "I believe Laurent Gbagbo is alive. I have learned that he is negotiating his surrender."
A spokesman for Gbagbo said he was still open to dialogue.
Gbagbo's foreign minister Alcide Djedje took shelter in the French embassy and said that Gbagbo and his family were "under attack" at the presidential residence.
Hours earlier, French and U.N. helicopters fired at the presidential palace, presidential residence and two military barracks held by the 65-year-old Gbagbo, targeting heavy weapons being used against civilians.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed the action was to protect residents and not a declaration of war against Gbagbo.
Gbagbo expressed surprise Tuesday at a "direct attack" by French forces, when he was still open to dialogue, his spokesman said.
Gbagbo's spokesman said the assault by U.N. and French forces on two military camps killed many, as soldiers lived with their families on the bases.
The United Nations said dozens of people were reportedly killed over the past few days in Abidjan and that the humanitarian situation in the city was "dramatic".
"In Abidjan, we are obviously extremely concerned about the situation of civilians at such a large city, population of millions, with heavy weapons being used inside densely populated urban areas reportedly leading to dozens of deaths in recent days," said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
U.N. Security Council resolution 1975 adopted on March 30 ordered sanctions against Gbagbo to push him to leave and also said the U.N. force should protect civilians and prevent use of heavy weapons.
Following a repeated chorus from around the world in recent days, U.S. President Barack Obama again urged Gbagbo "to end his claim to the presidency."
Gbagbo was elected in 2000 and postponed polls due in 2005 before allowing them to go ahead last year, only to reject the ruling of the election authority that he had lost to long-time rival Ouattara.
Reports meanwhile emerged of human rights abuses over the past week, as pro-Ouattara forces swept southwards to Abidjan, including the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the western town of Duekoue.
Months of fighting have also seen up to a million people flee their homes in Abidjan and elsewhere, many of them into neighboring countries, U.N. agencies have said, warning of a humanitarian disaster.
About 1,900 foreigners were meanwhile under French military protection in Abidjan after 447 others had already been flown out.