Tuesday, April 5, 2011

In Bunker, Ivory Coast's Gbagbo Plays Final Hand


Marco Chown Oved and Rukmini Callimachi

AP ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Surrounded by troops backing Ivory Coast's democratically elected leader, strongman Laurent Gbagbo huddled Tuesday with his family in a bunker and played his final hand, trying to wrest last-ditch concessions as he negotiated the terms of his surrender.

Down the hill from his luxurious compound, dozens of Gbagbo's soldiers were seen entering a church where they stripped off their uniforms and abandoned their weapons. Earlier, Gbagbo's three top generals said they had ordered their men to stop fighting, the United Nations said in a statement.

The developments spell game over for a man who refused to accept defeat 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, 60 mm mortars and 50-caliber machine guns to mow down opponents in the four months since his rival, Alassane Ouattara, was declared the winner of the contested vote.

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."

Then, just as he appeared to be on the brink of stepping down, Gbagbo, in his first interview in months, defiantly insisted he had no intention of surrendering power.

"I won the election and I'm not negotiating my departure," he told French TV station LCI by telephone from his bunker. "I find it absolutely incredible that the entire world is playing this ... game of poker."

Veteran observers of this nation on Africa's western edge say the turn of events could have been taken from a biography of Gbagbo.

In Abidjan, he has long been called "Le Boulanger," French for "the baker," because he rolls people in flour - a reference to a popular expression meaning to manipulate and deceive others.

"I think he's playing for time," said a senior diplomat who has closely followed events and spoke on condition of anonymity because he had not been cleared to speak to the media. "His aim is always to buy himself just one more day."

"We are still negotiating, and it's ongoing," said the spokesman for Ouattara's government, Patrick Achi. "We are waiting. There are ups and downs. (But) we won't be waiting until his food runs out."

Earlier Tuesday, France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Gbagbo would be required to relinquish power in writing and must formally recognize Ouattara, the internationally backed winner of the November election.

Before dawn, forces loyal to Ouattara seized the presidential residence where Gbagbo has been holed up, moving in after the United Nations agreed to act on a Security Council resolution passed last week giving their peacekeepers the right to take out Gbagbo's heavy artillery.

The offensive, which began Monday and included air attacks by U.N. helicopters and French forces on the presidential residence and three strategic military garrisons, marked an unprecedented escalation in the international community's efforts to oust Gbagbo.

President Barack Obama said Tuesday he welcomed the role of the U.N. 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," 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."

For four months after the election, Ouattara held off on launching a military offensive, hoping for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. More than half a dozen African leaders traveled to Gbagbo's residence to try to persuade him to step down, but he frustrated all of their efforts.

Ouattara has urged his supporters to take Gbagbo alive and unharmed. He is acutely aware that while he won last year's election with 54 percent of the vote, Gbagbo received 46 percent and still commands a strong following. So governing the country after this week's violent showdown is not likely to be easy.

Choi, the top U.N. diplomat in the country, said there are worries that Ivory Coast may become ungovernable. At least 430 people were killed last week in a massacre in the western town of Duekoue after pro-Ouattara forces moved in, according to U.N investigators, and there are fears of more violence.

"The immediate preoccupation would be how to restore law and order in Abidjan. There may be a security vacuum," Choi said.

Postelection violence had left hundreds dead - most of them Ouattara supporters - and forced up to 1 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 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 only countries in the region with four-lane highways, skyscrapers, escalators and wine bars.

Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Michelle Faul in Accra, Ghana; and Jenny Barchfield and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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