- Associated Press - Thursday, April 7, 2011

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Days into an offensive aimed at dislodging him from the presidential mansion, Ivory Coast’s strongman refused to budge Thursday from a bunker underneath his home, insisting he would never surrender despite the immense international pressure bearing down on him.

An adviser for Alassane Ouattara, the country’s democratically elected president, said their fighters had surrounded the property and planned to sit it out.

“We’re going to wait and let him come out like a rat,” said the adviser, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

An armed group backing Mr. Ouattara stormed the gates of incumbent strongman Laurent Gbagbo’s home on Wednesday but are fearful of killing the entrenched leader and stoking the rage of his supporters. Some 46 percent of Ivorians voted for Mr. Gbagbo in the November election that unleashed political chaos.

Mr. Gbagbo’s Europe-based adviser, Toussaint Alain, said by telephone that he had spoken to Mr. Gbagbo and to the ruler’s wife, Simone, at about 1 p.m. (9 a.m. EDT) Thursday and that their position had not changed.

“I reached the head of state and his wife less than an hour ago — and no, he will not surrender. President Gbagbo will not cede,” Mr. Alain said. “It’s a question of principle. President Gbagbo is not a monarch. He is not a king. He is not an emperor. He is a president elected by his people.”

Amid the fighting late Wednesday, French troops rescued the Japanese ambassador and seven others after fighters attacked them. In a video provided by the French military, the forces are seen rappelling from a helicopter with night-vision goggles.

“Mercenaries took over my residence, but in the end I was saved by French troops,” said Yoshifumi Okamura, Japan’s ambassador to the Ivory Coast.

Heavy-arms fire was heard across Abidjan overnight, but on Thursday hundreds of people ventured out despite the dangers in search of water as U.N. helicopters circled overhead.

Mr. Ouattara has pleaded with the international community for months to intervene and remove Mr. Gbagbo by force, arguing he wouldn’t leave any other way.

Despite losing the election, Mr. Gbagbo still controls the Ivorian army and repeatedly has used its arsenal of heavy artillery to attack areas of Abidjan where people voted for his opponent. Security forces are accused of opening fire with a mounted machine gun on a group of unarmed women and lobbing mortars into a market.

Finally on Monday, U.N. attack helicopters acting on a U.N. Security Council resolution bombarded six arms depots in Abidjan — including a cache inside the presidential compound.

“Obviously, they didn’t get all of it,” said a senior diplomat who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “When they came after him, he pulled out more stuff. Remember, he had a long time to prepare for this.”

Among the preparations was the choice of where Mr. Gbagbo would make his last stand. He is believed to be holed up in a tunnel originally built to connect the president’s home and the adjacent residence of the French ambassador, said Meite Sindou, a defense spokesman for Mr. Ouattara.

Ivory Coast’s first president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, built the tunnel so he could take refuge inside the ambassador’s residence in the event of a coup, said Ivory Coast expert Christian Bouquet, a professor of political geography at the University of Bordeaux III.

In an irony of history, Mr. Gbagbo is said to have severed the link between the residences shortly after coming to power in 2000. He accused France of backing a rebel group that attempted to overthrow him in 2002, and fighters from this same group are now backing Mr. Ouattara and carried out Wednesday’s attack on the residence.

The pro-Ouattara forces began their lightning advance just over a week ago, attacking from the east, west and center of the country. At least 80 percent of the countryside was under their control by the time they entered Abidjan, the nation’s largest city.

On Tuesday, Mr. Gbagbo’s soldiers were seen abandoning their posts, some rushing inside a church to tear off their uniforms before re-emerging in civilian clothes. His generals issued orders to stop fighting.

Yet Mr. Gbagbo, a former history professor, appears to have calculated his rival’s weakness: Mr. Ouattara knows that he needs to take Mr. Gbagbo alive to maintain international support and to avoid further alienating voters who supported Mr. Gbagbo in last year’s election.

From inside his bunker, Mr. Gbagbo blasted the world in back-to-back interviews on French TV station LCI and French radio RFI. He said that he would never step down that there was nothing to negotiate, and he called the operation to oust him an international “game of poker.”

Ouattara spokeswoman Affoussy Bamba said that she was nonetheless optimistic that the end was near.

“He has nothing left. His arsenal is gone. His army has evaporated,” she said by telephone from Abidjan. “How much longer can he last?”

Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Michelle Faul in Accra, Ghana; and Cecile Brisson in Paris contributed to this report.



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