Forces loyal to Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara on Wednesday stormed the residence of incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo who has refused to cede power, a spokeswoman for Ouattara forces told Reuters.
"Yes they (Ouattara forces) are in the process of entering the residence to seize Gbagbo, they have not taken him yet, but they are in the process, they are in the building," Affousy Bamba told Reuters.
Residents around the presidential palace in Abidjan's Cocody neighborhood said they heard heavy gunfire and loud explosions coming from the direction of the palace.
"I have seen from my building the FRCI fighters (Ouattara forces) in pickups and 4x4 jeeps rushing toward Gbagbo's residence, weapons in their hands," Alfred Kouassi, who lives near Gbagbo's residence in Cocody, told Reuters.
"We can hear automatic gunfire and also the thuds of heavy weapons coming from the residence," he said.
Gbagbo representative Toussaint Alain, speaking to The Associated Press in a phone interview from Paris, said Gbagbo's residence was being bombarded by the French army, but the French military denied the claim.
"France will be held responsible for the death of President Gbagbo, his wife and family members and all those who are inside the residence, which is being bombarded by the French army," he said, adding "there is a real danger" that Gbagbo and the others could be killed in the operation.
French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard denied that French forces were firing at Gbagbo's residence, saying no French or U.N. operation was underway. France has helicopters patrolling Abidjan, helping guide ground forces and rescue people trapped in dangerous areas, he said.
'Absurd' stubbornness Gbagbo was hanging on to what little power he has left inside a bunker, encircled on all sides by soldiers loyal to his rival.
Diplomats said he had sent emissaries to negotiate, only to then refuse the proposals put before him.
Although Gbagbo is cornered and his army is rapidly disbanding, getting him out of the bunker is not an easy matter.
Forces backing Ouattara have received strict instructions to take him unharmed, said several members of the president's cabinet.
After the evening newscast Tuesday, Ouattara's private TV station showed the movie "Downfall," which traces the last days of Adolf Hitler inside a bunker in Germany.
"This stubbornness is absurd. Gbagbo has no other solution anymore. Everybody has dropped him," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told France Info radio Wednesday.
"He is holed up in the bunker in his residence so we will continue with the United Nations, which is handling that, to put pressure on him so he accepts to acknowledge the reality: There is only one legal and legitimate president today, it is Alassane Ouattara and I hope that persuasion will win and that we will avoid having to resume the military operations."
Negotiations through the night
French armed forces chief Admiral Edouard Guillaud said negotiations with Gbagbo "continued through the night but unfortunately I see no breakthrough for now."
"Despite that, I believe it is a matter of hours, possibly during the day," he told Europe 1 radio.
Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power since a U.N.-certified election in November showed he lost to rival Alassane Ouattara, told a French TV channel in a telephone interview aired on Tuesday evening that his army had called for a ceasefire after their weaponry was destroyed by the French and U.N. airstrikes.
France's intervention in its former colony has infuriated Gbagbo's camp, which already blames Paris for supporting the north of the country in a 2002-03 civil war, 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.
Gbagbo has defied international pressure to give up the presidency of the cocoa growing country after an election in November that U.N.-certified results showed Ouattara won. At least 1,500 people have died in the standoff.
Guillaud said strikes against Gbagbo's camp could resume at the request of the United Nations and if he continued to refuse to step down.
He too said Gbagbo was still in his presidential residence and had nearly agreed to surrender twice in the past few days before backtracking at the insistence of people close to him.
"He is shut inside the president's residence and his allies only hold the grounds around the presidential residence," he said.
In the event of a surrender, the most likely option for Gbagbo would be to go into exile, he added.