Forces loyal to Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara laid siege to incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo's residence on Thursday, after an attempt to pluck him from his bunker met with fierce resistance.
Fighting continued in Abidjan as Ouattara's forces tried to unseat Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power after losing a November election to Ouattara according to U.N.-certified results.
Sporadic explosions broke the silence of one of the quieter nights since Ouattara's soldiers arrived in the economic capital a week ago, a Reuters witness said.
Airstrikes already have pounded holes in his garden and destroyed his weapons depots, and fighters have encircled his home and stormed the gates.
But forces allied with Ouattara are fearful of killing Gbagbo and stoking the rage of his supporters. Some 46 percent of Ivorians voted for him in the November election that unleashed political chaos.
The 65-year-old strongman, who has made an art of staying in power years past the end of his legal mandate, is now pushing the envelope, fighting for each day, even each hour.
"He will not surrender," said Meite Sindou, a defense spokesman for Ouattara, the man recognized worldwide as the democratically elected president of Ivory Coast. "We will have to take him."
Struggle for control
Gbagbo's forces roamed the streets and broke into the Japanese ambassador's residence overnight, forcing him and seven other employees to take shelter in a safe room before French and United Nations forces rescued them by helicopter, according to Japanese media reports.
Despite losing the election, Gbagbo still controls the Ivorian army and has repeatedly 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.
A Gbagbo advisor based in Paris told Reuters that Ouattara forces had renewed an assault on Gbagbo's residence late on Wednesday with support from U.N. and French helicopters. His statement could not be independently verified.
Ouattara forces had tried to storm the residence in the upscale Cocody neighborhood earlier on Wednesday after talks led by the United Nations and France to secure Gbagbo's departure failed, but they were pushed back by heavy weapons fire, a Western diplomatic source who lives nearby said.
The former colonial power in Ivory Coast, France has taken a leading role in talks to persuade Gbagbo to hand over to Ouattara and end the standoff over the contested election in November.
A U.N. spokesman in New York said negotiations with Gbagbo's camp were continuing, but it was not clear if they would lead anywhere, especially as Gbagbo himself told French radio he had no intention of stepping down.
Helicopters commanded by the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast bombarded Gbagbo's heavy weapons stockpiles earlier this week, including those near his residence — but those attacks ended on Tuesday.
"Obviously they didn't get all of it," said a senior diplomat who requested anonymity because he is 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."
Gbagbo's refugeAmong the preparations was the choice of where 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, Sindou said.
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, Gbagbo is said to have severed the link between the residences shortly after coming to power in 2000. He had accused France of backing a rebel group that attempted to overthrow him in 2002, and fighters from this same group are now backing Ouattara and carried out Wednesday's attack on the residence.
Analysts said Ouattara forces, who swept south last week in a lightly contested march toward Abidjan, could struggle to best Gbagbo's remaining presidential guard and militias.
"Just like in Libya, it's going to take both the rebels and outside forces to push Gbagbo out," said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, analyst at DaMina Advisors in New York.
Ouattara's 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?"
Gbagbo has ruled Ivory Coast since 2000 and blames Paris for supporting the north of the country in the civil war of 2002-03. Rebels from that war now make up the bulk of Ouattara's force.
Last year's long-delayed election in the world's top cocoa producing nation was meant to draw a line under the civil war, but Gbagbo's refusal to give up power has plunged the country into violence that has killed more than 1,500 people.
The International Criminal Court prosecutor said on Tuesday he was in talks with West African states about referring alleged atrocities in the Ivory Coast to the court after a reported massacre in the west of the country.