- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 5, 2011

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Ivory Coast’s strongman leader Laurent Gbagbo holed up in a bunker inside the presidential residence Tuesday, defiantly maintaining he won the election four months ago even as troops backing the internationally recognized winner encircled the home.

Mr. Gbagbo’s comments by telephone to France’s LCI television came as French officials and a diplomat said he was negotiating his departure terms after French and U.N. forces launched a military offensive Monday.

Democratically elected leader Alassane Ouattara has urged his supporters to take Gbagbo alive.

Talks about Mr. Gbagbo’s departure terms were ongoing Tuesday evening directly between Mr. Gbagbo and Mr. Ouattara, according to a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Mr. Gbagbo would be required to relinquish power in writing after a decade as presiden, and must formally recognize Mr. Ouattara, the internationally backed winner of the November election that plunged this West African nation into chaos.

But Mr. Gbagbo showed no intention of leaving, declaring in his interview with French television that Mr. Ouattara “did not win the elections” even though he was declared the victor by the United Nations, African Union, United States, former colonial power France and other world leaders.

“I won the election, and I am not negotiating my departure,” Mr. Gbagbo said by telephone. The French channel said the interview was conducted by phone from his residence at 1:30 p.m. EDT and lasted about 20 minutes.

U.N. and French forces opened fire with attack helicopters on Gbagbo’s arms stockpiles and bases on Monday after four months of political deadlock. Columns of foot soldiers allied with Mr. Ouattara also finally pierced the city limits of Abidjan, the nation’s largest city.

“One might think that we are getting to the end of the crisis,” Hamadoun Toure, spokesman for the U.N. mission to Ivory Coast, said by phone. “We spoke to his close aides. Some had already defected; some are ready to stop fighting. He is alone now; he is in his bunker with a handful of supporters and family members. So is he going to last or not? I don’t know.”

Mr. Toure said that the United Nations had received phone calls Tuesday from the three main Gbagbo-allied generals, saying they were planning to order their troops to stop fighting.

“They asked us to accept arms and ammunition from the troops and to provide them protection,” he said.

The offensive that began Monday included air attacks on the presidential residence and three strategic military garrisons, marking an unprecedented escalation in the international community’s efforts to oust Mr. Gbagbo, as pro-Ouattara fighters pushed their way to the heart of the city to reach Mr. Gbagbo’s home.

President Obama on Tuesday said he welcomed the role of the U.N. and French forces in Ivory Coast, also known by its French name, Cote d’Ivoire.

“To end this violence and prevent more bloodshed, former President Gbagbo must stand down immediately, and direct those who are fighting on his behalf to lay down their arms,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “Every day that the fighting persists will bring more suffering, and further delay the future of peace and prosperity that the people of Cote d’Ivoire deserve.”

Mr. Gbagbo refused to cede power to Mr. Ouattara even as Ivory Coast, the world’s largest cocoa producer, teetered on the brink of all-out civil war as the political crisis drew out, with both men claiming the presidency. Mr. Ouattara has tried to rule from a lagoonside hotel, while Mr.  Gbagbo stubbornly has refused every olive branch extended to him.

On Tuesday, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council again urged Mr. Gbagbo to cede power immediately to Mr. Ouattara “in order to curtail the suffering of the Ivorian people.”

Mr. Juppe said negotiations with Gbagbo and his family were ongoing.

“His adviser, Alcide Djedje, who is presented as his foreign minister, has arrived at the French Embassy, and he’s in the process of discussions on conditions of Gbagbo’s departure,” Mr. Juppe said from France.

Even before the offensive, postelection violence had left hundreds dead — most of them Ouattara supporters — and forced up to 1 million people to flee their homes.

Ivory Coast gained independence from France in 1960, and some 20,000 French citizens still lived there when a brief civil war broke out in 2002. French troops were then tasked by the United Nations with monitoring a cease-fire and protecting foreign nationals in Ivory Coast, which was once an economic star and is still one of the only countries in the region with four-lane highways, skyscrapers, escalators and wine bars.

Following four months of attempts to negotiate Mr.  Gbagbo’s departure, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed an especially strong resolution giving the 12,000-strong peacekeeping operation the right “to use all necessary means to carry out its mandate to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence … including to prevent the use of heavy weapons against the civilian population.”

Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Michelle Faul in Accra, Ghana; Marco Chown Oved in Abidjan; and Jenny Barchfield and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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