Image: Laurent Gbagbo
Sia Kambou  /  AFP - Getty Images
Laurent Gbagbo
msnbc.com news services
updated 4/5/2011 7:24:13 PM ET 2011-04-05T23:24:13

Surrounded by troops backing Ivory Coast's democratically elected leader, strongman Laurent Gbagbo huddled Tuesday with his family in a bunker and played his final hand, trying to wrest last-ditch concessions as he negotiated the terms of his surrender.

Down the hill from his luxurious compound, dozens of Gbagbo's soldiers were seen entering a church where they stripped off their uniforms and abandoned their weapons. Earlier, Gbagbo's three top generals said they had ordered their men to stop fighting, the United Nations said in a statement.

The developments spell game over for a man who refused to accept defeat in last year's election and took his country to the precipice of civil war in his bid to preserve power. His security forces are accused of using cannons, 60 mm mortars and 50-caliber machine guns to mow down opponents in the four months since his rival, Alassane Ouattara, was declared the winner of the contested vote.

Choi Young-jin, the top United Nations envoy in Ivory Coast said by telephone that Gbagbo's surrender was "imminent."

"He accepted (the) principle of accepting the results of the election, so he doesn't have many cards in his hands," Choi told Associated Press Television News. "The key element they are negotiating is where Mr. Gbagbo would go."

Who is Ivory Coast's Ouattara?

Then, just as he appeared to be on the brink of stepping down, Gbagbo, in his first interview in months, defiantly insisted he had no intention of surrendering power.

"I won the election and I'm not negotiating my departure," he told French TV station LCI by telephone from his bunker. "I find it absolutely incredible that the entire world is playing this ... game of poker."

Ouattara's forces have fought their way into the main city Abidjan after advancing across the country, and France said on Tuesday it expected a swift exit by Gbagbo.

"The army has called for the suspension of hostilities ... and it is currently discussing the conditions of a cease-fire with the other forces on the ground, but on a political level no decision has yet been taken," Gbagbo said, speaking from the presidential palace in Abidjan.

"The underlying debate continues. That debate is simple: who won the elections of November 21?" he said. "He (Ouattara) did not win the elections ... To bring peace back to Ivory Coast it is necessary for the two of us to talk, that is the most important thing."

Timeline: Ivory Coast's turbulent history (on this page)

Veteran observers of this nation on Africa's western edge say the turn of events could have been taken from a biography of Gbagbo.

In Abidjan, he has long been called "Le Boulanger," French for "the baker," because he rolls people in flour — a reference to a popular expression meaning to manipulate and deceive others.

"I think he's playing for time," said a senior diplomat who has closely followed events and spoke on condition of anonymity because he had not been cleared to speak to the media. "His aim is always to buy himself just one more day."

"We are still negotiating, and it's ongoing," said the spokesman for Ouattara's government, Patrick Achi. "We are waiting. There are ups and downs. (But) we won't be waiting until his food runs out."

Earlier Tuesday, France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Gbagbo would be required to relinquish power in writing and must formally recognize Ouattara, the internationally backed winner of the November election.

Before dawn, forces loyal to Ouattara seized the presidential residence where Gbagbo has been holed up, moving in after the United Nations agreed to act on a Security Council resolution passed last week giving their peacekeepers the right to take out Gbagbo's heavy artillery.

The offensive, which began Monday and included air attacks by U.N. helicopters and French forces on the presidential residence and three strategic military garrisons, marked an unprecedented escalation in the international community's efforts to oust Gbagbo.

President Barack Obama said Tuesday 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," 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."

For four months after the election, Ouattara held off on launching a military offensive, hoping for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. More than half a dozen African leaders traveled to Gbagbo's residence to try to persuade him to step down, but he frustrated all of their efforts.

Ouattara has urged his supporters to take Gbagbo alive and unharmed. He is acutely aware that while he won last year's election with 54 percent of the vote, Gbagbo received 46 percent and still commands a strong following. So governing the country after this week's violent showdown is not likely to be easy.

Choi, the top U.N. diplomat in the country, said there are worries that Ivory Coast may become ungovernable. At least 430 people were killed last week in a massacre in the western town of Duekoue after pro-Ouattara forces moved in, according to U.N investigators, and there are fears of more violence.

"The immediate preoccupation would be how to restore law and order in Abidjan. There may be a security vacuum," Choi said.

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 U.N. 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.

The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this report.

Video: Ivory Coast civil war nearing end

  1. Closed captioning of: Ivory Coast civil war nearing end

    >>> now we turn to these multiple crises we've been covering overseas. first, in the ivory coast it appears the bloody civil war may be over. after months of fighting, hundreds dead there, tonight the former president is reportedly in his basement bunker, negotiating his own surrender, one day after the united nations and french helicopters intervened, firing on his presidential residence and military sites. he had refused to give up power, even after losing national elections there in november. in

Timeline: Ivory Coast's turbulent history

Timeline: Learn how this former French colony has changed from the most prosperous nation in West Africa to another war-torn state.

  1. Residents burn tires and block the stree
    Issouf Sanogo / AFP/Getty Images
    Above: Timeline Ivory Coast's turbulent history
  2. Timeline Ivory Coast: Disputed election raises fear of another civil war

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