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Gbagbo forces push back assault on palace

Ivory Coast's strongman remains holed up in a subterranean bunker after his forces pushed back an attack by fighters backing his rival, diplomats and witnesses said.
Soldiers loyal to Alassane Ouattara prepare to deploy at a checkpoint at one of the principal entrances to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Wednesday.
Soldiers loyal to Alassane Ouattara prepare to deploy at a checkpoint at one of the principal entrances to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Wednesday.Rebecca Blackwell / AP
/ Source: news services

Heavy arms fire rang out Wednesday near the home of the country's strongman who remained holed up in a subterranean bunker, as forces backing his rival assaulted the residence to try to force him out, diplomats and witnesses said.

Forces protecting Laurent Gbagbo appeared to rally Wednesday night, pushing back the armed group fighting to install democratically elected president Alassane Ouattara.

A spokesman for Ouattara's fighters, Yves Doumbia, said their forces breached the gates of the ruler's compound, only to be repelled by heavy arms fire.

"We retreated but we are preparing for a second assault," Doumbia said by telephone.

Gbagbo has suffered debilitating losses in the past two days. United Nations Mi-24 helicopters attacked and destroyed his arms depots on Monday. On Tuesday, his soldiers were seen abandoning their posts across the city, some rushing inside a church to tear off their uniforms and dump their weapons before discreetly exiting in civilian clothes.

Yet the 65-year-old Gbagbo — a former history professor — appears to have calculated his rival's weakness: Ouattara, an intellectual who has spent decades abroad, knows that he needs to take Gbagbo alive in order to maintain international support, and avoid further alienating the 46 percent of the electorate that voted for Gbagbo in last year's presidential election.

A spokeswoman for Ouattara said earlier on France-24 television that the forces would eventually succeed in forcing out the leader who has refused to cede power after losing a November election.

"At the current moment they have not yet captured Gbagbo but it will happen soon," Affoussy Bamba said by telephone from Abidjan.

"They opened the gates and noted that the residence is surrounded by heavy weaponry," she said. "Now the objective is to capture him."

Gbagbo had appeared to be on the point of surrender on Tuesday, sending an emissary to meet with foreign ambassadors in order to negotiate the terms of his resignation. But a senior diplomat who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press said the overture appeared to be a foil, and that Gbagbo was simply playing for time.

"The conditions set by President Ouattara are rather clear. He is demanding that Laurent Gbagbo accept his defeat and recognize the victory of the legitimately elected president," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Wednesday. "That's where we are today, and alas, words have given way to weapons."

Earlier in the day, Radio France International broadcast an interview with Gbagbo in which he said he had won last November's election and that there was no question of him leaving.

"We are not at the negotiating phase. And my departure from where? My departure to where?" he said.

Gbagbo refused to accept defeat to Ouattara 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, mortars and machine guns to mow down opponents in the four months since Ouattara was declared the winner of the contested vote.

In Europe, Gbagbo's spokesman attempted to spin the attack on the residence by Ouattara's forces as a foreign intervention. He claimed it was the French that was storming the home of the former leader, a claim the French military vigorously denied.

In Paris, more than 100 Gbagbo supporters protested peacefully outside the National Assembly against France's military action in Ivory Coast. One of the protesters hoisted a picture of President Nicolas Sarkozy and the words "Sarko out of Ivory Coast." Others chanted "Sarkozy murderer!"

United Nations attack helicopters helped by French troops bombarded the ruler's arsenal late Monday, acting on a Security Council resolution authorizing them to take out his heavy weapons because they had been used against the population. The international forces have not been involved in the ground attack Wednesday on the residence, said diplomats and French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said hospitals were overwhelmed, wounded were arriving "by any means possible," medical supplies were lacking and health personnel sometimes had to work without running water and electricity.

Despite the fighting, desperate civilians in the north of the city ventured outside to hunt for water and food.

"We haven't slept, we haven't eaten, we've had nothing to drink. We are all going to die," 17-year-old Mariam said.

This Associated Press report includes information from Reuters.