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Ivory Coast Strongman's Supporters Repel Attack

Supporters of Ivory Coast's embattled strongman, Laurent Gbagbo, on Wednesday pushed back an armed group trying to force him out of a subterranean bunker where he has taken shelter.

Gbagbo has refused to relinquish power to the country's internationally recognized president-elect, Alassane Ouattara. Heavy arms fire rang out Wednesday as forces loyal to Ouattara assaulted Gbagbo's compound in the main city of Abidjan, diplomats and witnesses said.

A spokesman for Ouattara's fighters, Yves Doumbia, said the fighters breached the gates of the compound only to be forced to retreat in the face of the heavy artillery unleashed by Gbagbo's guards.

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

Soldiers loyal to Alassane Ouattara point to men they claim to recognize among several dozen prisoners captured.
Rebecca Blackwell / AP
Soldiers loyal to Alassane Ouattara point to men they claim to recognize among several dozen prisoners captured.

Affoussy Bamba, another spokeswoman for Ouattara, said on France 24 television that the residence is surrounded by heavy weaponry.

"Now the objective is to capture him," he said.

Ouattara's forces have received strict instructions to take him unharmed, several members of the president's Cabinet said.

Gbagbo, who insists he is the winner of last year's presidential election, 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.

Gbagbo's camp accuses Paris of meddling and declaring war on him.

Analysts say Ouattara is acutely aware that while he won last year's election with 54 percent of the vote, Gbagbo received 46 percent — representing nearly half the electorate. A diplomat who speaks to Ouattara frequently said that the leader is aware of the danger involved at this stage, because if Gbagbo is killed it may galvanize his supporters.

France and the United Nations said negotiations were under way earlier this week for Gbagbo's exit, but the defiant leader appeared on a French television station Tuesday to say he was neither willing to step down nor surrender.

"My voice is not the voice of a martyr and my goal is not to die," he said.

Gbagbo said he's prepared to talk to Ouattara, but that is not handing over power to him, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, reporting from Accra in neighboring Ghana, said. Even so, 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."

France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has said that Gbagbo would be required to relinquish power in writing and must formally recognize Ouattara.

After amassing Monday at the outskirts of the city, Ouattara's fighters seized the presidential residence where Gbagbo has been holed up overnight. They moved in after the United Nations agreed to act on a Security Council resolution giving their peacekeepers the right to take out Gbagbo's heavy artillery.

A spokesman for Ouattara, Patrick Achi, said that Gbagbo would be safe if he surrendered peacefully.

"The instruction is to get him alive, that's the instruction of President Ouattara, because we need a trial; we need to bring him to justice and be accountable for all he has done," Achi said.

President Obama said Tuesday the role of the U.N. was necessary to end the conflict. Ouattara's forces had taken more than three-quarters of the countryside between Monday and Wednesday of last week, but then faltered when they reached Abidjan, where Gbagbo had created a protective radius, manned by his most faithful soldiers.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed in deadly fighting in Abidjan and in western Ivory Coast since the disputed presidential vote in November.

In the recent fighting, "civilians have been barricading themselves into their homes," Quist-Arcton said.

"They've been trapped in their homes with no food, no water, no security, no electricity," she said. "They are terrified that there are armed men — pro-Gbagbo militias, pro-Ouattara forces — roaming around pillaging, looting, attacking civilians."

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 few countries in the region with four-lane highways, skyscrapers, escalators and wine bars.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press

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