Forces loyal to Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara launched a heavy attack today on the bunker where Laurent Gbagbo was defying efforts to force him to cede power, residents said.
“The fighting is terrible here, the explosions are so heavy my building is shaking,” Alfred Kouassi, who lives near Gbagbo’s residence in the commercial capital Abidjan, told Reuters.
“We can hear automatic gunfire and also the thud of heavy weapons. There’s shooting all over the place. Cars are speeding in all directions and so are the fighters,” he said.
He could see French tanks in the street but did not know whether they were taking part in the offensive. The French ambassador’s residence is close to Gbagbo’s.
France, the former colonial power, said fighting was under way around Gbagbo’s residence, but that French troops in the city were not involved.
A spokeswoman for Ouattara’s forces said Ouattara’s fighters were storming Gbagbo’s residence, where Gbagbo has been holed up since Ouattara’s forces swept into Abidjan backed by helicopter strikes by the United Nations and France.
“They are in the process of entering the residence to seize Gbagbo,” Affousy Bamba told Reuters. “They have not taken him yet, but they are in the process.”
Residents however said militias close to Gbagbo and his presidential guard were putting up a stiff resistance, even as most soldiers from the regular army had heeded a call to lay down their arms.
A French government source said that fighting began after Gbagbo showed he was unwilling to negotiate with mediators trying to persuade him to leave.
Gbagbo has ruled Ivory Coast since 2000 but according to U.N.-certified results lost an election to Ouattara last November,
Negotiations to persuade Gbagbo to quit stalled early today as he resisted pressure from the United Nations and France to sign a document renouncing his claim to power.
“If Gbagbo has refused to sign the documents they (UN and France) presented to him yesterday, it is because they proposed something that had no legal and judicial basis,” Gbagbo’s spokesman Ahoua Don Mello told Reuters today.
A defiant Gbagbo had earlier denied reports he was ready to surrender after a fierce assault by forces loyal to Ouattara, whose victory in November’s presidential election Gbagbo refused to accept.
“We are not at the negotiating stage. And my departure from where? To go where?” Gbagbo told French radio RFI on today.
He said he was with his family at the residence in Abidjan’s upmarket Cocody neighbourhood.
Gbagbo had told French television channel LCI his army had only called for a cease-fire after its weaponry was destroyed by French and U.N. air strikes on Monday. He had suggested direct talks with Ouattara, an offer that was not accepted.
“I’m not a kamikaze. I love life. My voice is not the voice of a martyr, no, no, no, I’m not looking for death. It’s not my aim to die,” Gbagbo, told the channel by telephone.
“For peace to return to Ivory Coast, I and Ouattara, the two of us have to talk,” he added.
Ouattara’s forces were ordered not to kill Gbagbo.
“Alassane Ouattara has given formal instructions that Gbagbo is to be kept alive because we want to bring him to justice,” Ouattara spokesman Patrick Achi told Reuters.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the only thing left to discuss with Gbagbo was his departure, while French armed forces chief said Gbagbo could surrender within hours after negotiations dragged overnight.
“They continued through the night but unfortunately I see no breakthrough for now,” armed forces chief Edouard Guillaud told Europe 1 radio. “Despite that, I believe it is a matter of hours, possibly during the day.”
France’s intervention in its former colony has infuriated Gbagbo, who blames Paris for supporting the north of the country in the civil war of 2002-03, and it comes at a tense time for French diplomacy after President Nicolas Sarkozy’s spearheading of the West’s military response to the crisis in Libya.
“We accuse France of seeking to assassinate president Gbagbo. President Sarkozy is organising the assassination of President Gbagbo,” Gbagbo’s spokesman in Paris, Toussaint Alain, told Reuters.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for Gbagbo to leave power and for Ouattara to work to heal deep divisions in Ivory Coast.
“Gbagbo should leave. He has a lot to answer for, the way he has behaved since the elections,” Annan told Reuters in Geneva.
Last year’s long-delayed election in the world’s top cocoa producing nation was meant to draw a line under the civil war, but Gbagbo’s refusal to cede power has plunged the country into violence that has killed more than 1,500 people.
The International Criminal Court prosecutor said on Tuesday he was in talks with West African states about referring alleged atrocities in the Ivory Coast to the court after a reported massacre in the west of the country.
Cocoa prices were little changed on Wednesday as traders were confident that Gbagbo’s expected exit would allow a swift resumption of exports. The country’s defaulted US$2.3 billion (1.4 billion pound) Eurobond rose to a four-month high on Wednesday on raised expectations of repayment.
The European Union on Wednesday imposed additional sanctions on the Gbagbo government, covering bonds, securities and loans.