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France: Ivory Coast Strongman In Talks To Surrender

Fighters loyal to Ivory Coast President-elect Alassane Ouattara prepared for an assault in the city of Abidjan on Tuesday.
Fighters loyal to Ivory Coast President-elect Alassane Ouattara prepared for an assault in the city of Abidjan on Tuesday.

The U.N. and France were negotiating the terms Tuesday for the departure of Ivory Coast's defiant incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, officials said.

The negotiations came a day after United Nations and French forces opened fire with attack helicopters on Gbagbo's arms stockpiles and bases, intervening after four months of bitter and deadly fighting between loyalists and supporters of Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the November presidential election.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast said Gbagbo's forces requested a cease-fire earlier Tuesday, and that it had asked the loyalists to lay down their arms.

Officials said Gbagbo was holed up in a bunker in the basement of the presidential palace in Abidjan after troops backing Ouattara seized the residence.

Gbagbo's foreign minister, Alcide Djedje, said he was sent to the French Embassy in Abidjan to negotiate a halt to hostilities and that the fighting in the country's largest city had stopped.

"The war is finished now. It is the end of the war. There is now negotiation," Djedje said. He would not comment on whether Gbagbo still insisted he was the legitimate president. In comments by telephone to Frances LCI television, Gbagbo defiantly maintained he won the election.

Talks directly between Gbagbo and Ouattara were ongoing Tuesday evening, according to a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Choi Young-jin, the U.N.'s top envoy in Ivory Coast, said participants were discussing where Gbagbo would go once he stepped down.

When asked by The Associated Press Television News whether he was confident Gbagbo has decided to leave, Choi said,"Mr. Gbagbo has signaled for the first time since the crisis, he will accept the will of the people, the results of the election."

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Gbagbo would be required to relinquish power in writing after a decade as president and formally recognize Ouattara as the winner of the election that plunged the West African nation into chaos.

"Gbagbo is negotiating his surrender because he has realized it is the end of the road and he can no longer continue with his criminal stubbornness in trying to stay in power," said Ali Coulibaly, who was appointed by Ouattara as ambassador to Paris.

Opposition forces succeeded in taking nearly the entire countryside in just three days last week. But they faltered once they reached Abidjan and the U.N. intervened. The U.N. Security Council unanimously had passed an especially strong resolution last week giving the 12,000-strong peacekeeping operation the right "to use all necessary means to carry out its mandate to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence ... including to prevent the use of heavy weapons against the civilian population."

The offensive that began Monday included air attacks on the presidential residence and three strategic military garrisons, marking an unprecedented escalation in the international community's efforts to oust Gbagbo, as pro-Ouattara fighters pushed their way to the heart of the city to reach Gbagbo's home.

Even before the offensive, postelection violence had left hundreds dead — most of them Ouattara supporters — and forced up to 1 million people to flee their homes.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Catholic charity Caritas have reported that between 800 and 1,000 people were killed last week in the western Ivorian town of Duekoue. Witnesses said Red Cross workers retrieved bodies from the bush and carried them to a mass grave.

In the U.S., President Obama said Tuesday that he welcomed the role of the U.N. and French forces in Ivory Coast.

"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."

With reporting from NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Accra, Ghana, and Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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