x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Gbagbo's hours numbered as he negotiates surrender to Ivory Coast rival

Laurent Gbagbo appears defeated as troops backing Ivory Coast’s democratically elected leader, Alassane Ouattara, surround his bunker.

Alassane Ouattara's FRCI soldiers ride an armed vehicle as they prepare for the so-called 'final assault' in front of the Golf hotel in Abidjan.
Alassane Ouattara's FRCI soldiers ride an armed vehicle as they prepare for the so-called 'final assault' in front of the Golf hotel in Abidjan.

ABIDJAN // Surrounded by troops backing Ivory Coast's democratically elected leader, strongman Laurent Gbagbo huddled in a bunker at his home with his family yesterday and tried to negotiate terms of surrender, officials said.

France's foreign minister said officials were demanding that Mr Gbagbo renounce power in writing and formally recognise his rival Alassane Ouattara, the internationally backed winner of the November election that plunged the West African nation into chaos.

Forces loyal to Mr Ouattara yesterday seized the presidential residence where Mr Gbagbo tried to wrest last-ditch concessions, said a senior diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. Mr Ouattara has urged his supporters to take Mr Gbagbo alive.

The French foreign minister Alain Juppe told a parliamentary commission that military chiefs in the former French colony had given orders for a ceasefire.

UN and French forces opened fire with attack helicopters on Mr Gbagbo's arms stockpiles and bases on Monday, after four months of political deadlock in the former French colony. Columns of foot soldiers allied with Mr Ouattara also finally pierced the city limits of Abidjan.

"One might think that we are getting to the end of the crisis," said Hamadoun Toure, spokesman for the UN mission to Ivory Coast. "We spoke to his close aides, some had already defected, some are ready to stop fighting. He is alone now, he is in his bunker with a handful of supporters and family members. So is he going to last or not? I don't know."

Mr Toure said the UN had received phone calls yesterday from the three main Gbagbo-allied generals, saying they were planning to order their troops to stop fighting.

"They asked us to accept arms and ammunition from the troops and to provide them protection," he said.

The French defence minister, Gerard Longuet, told a news conference in Paris yesterday that he hoped the situation would be resolved within hours.

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

The US president, Barack Obama, said yesterday he welcomed the role of UN and French forces in Ivory Coast, also known by its French name, Cote d'Ivoire.

"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," Mr 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."

Mr Gbagbo refused to cede power to Mr Ouattara, even as the country, the world's largest cocoa producer teetered on the brink of all-out civil war as the political crisis drew out, with both men claiming the presidency. Mr Ouattara has tried to rule from a lagoon-side hotel.

Yesterday, the African Union's peace and security council again urged Mr Gbagbo to cede power immediately to Mr Ouattara "in order to curtail the suffering of the Ivorian people".

Mr Juppe said negotiations with Mr Gbagbo and his family were ongoing. "His adviser, Alcide Djedje, who is presented as his foreign minister, has arrived at the French Embassy and he's in the process of discussions on conditions of Gbagbo's departure," Mr Juppe said from France.

Even before the offensive, post-election violence had left hundreds dead - most of them Ouattara supporters - and forced up to a million people to flee their homes.

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 UN with monitoring a ceasefire and protecting foreign nationals in Ivory Coast, which was once an economic star and is still one of the only countries in the region with four-lane highways, skyscrapers, escalators and wine bars.

After four months of attempts to negotiate Mr Gbagbo's departure, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a strong resolution 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".