Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo may surrender amid calls for cease-fire


Surrounded by opposition forces, Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo is in a bunker under his home and is negotiating a surrender following his defeat in elections last fall.

By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa

Laurent Gbagbo, who has been fighting to retain the presidency of Ivory Coast after his defeat last fall in U.N.-certified elections, was surrounded by rival forces Tuesday in a bunker beneath his home, according to senior officials in his entourage, amid reports of a possible cease-fire.

After days of intense fighting in the West African nation's main city, Abidjan, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said in Paris that two generals close to Gbagbo were negotiating his surrender.

A United Nations statement confirmed Gbagbo had retreated to a bunker under his residence and had called for a cease-fire, while the chief of staff of his troops, Philippe Mangou, told news agencies his forces had stopped fighting and had requested a cease-fire.

The developments came after helicopter strikes Monday by U.N. and French peacekeeping forces destroyed a major military base, an arms depot and the state television station and took out heavy weaponry around the presidential palace, neutering Gbagbo's military.

The world body said the strikes were necessary to stop Gbagbo's forces firing at civilians and attacking U.N. peacekeepers.

After days of fierce fighting, many of Abidjan's remaining 4 million residents were stranded in their homes without access to food or water, unable to go outdoors because of shooting and heavy weapons fire. During any lulls in the shooting, violent militias rampaged in the city, looting shops and houses.

Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting, according to the International Committee for the Red Cross, and the U.N. has reported that about 1 million people have fled their homes.

The crisis was sparked after Gbagbo, defeated in elections last November that were observed and certified by the U.N., refused to stand down. The world body, the African Union and other international organizations and leaders recognized his rival, Alassane Ouattara, as president and called for Gbagbo to leave power.

But despite mounting pressure and U.N. Security Council sanctions, Gbagbo continued to cling on as his militias rampaged in neighborhoods of Abidjan, killing opposition supporters and foreign migrants.

Gbagbo, 65, a Sorbonne-educated history professor, was for many years the main opposition figure to Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the pro-French founding president of Ivory Coast, who reigned from independence in 1959 until his death in 1993.

Gbagbo came to power as the only opposition candidate who wasn't barred from running in 2000 elections that followed a 1999 coup against then President Henri Bedie by Robert Guei, a military officer.

Gbagbo claimed victory in 2000 and flooded the streets with his supporters, toppling Guei and vowing to bring an end to the cult of personality where "big men" clung to power and refused to tolerate dissent or accept defeat.

In 2002, a civil war split the country into north and south. As the standoff dragged on, Gbagbo repeatedly put off the elections that were due in 2005.

Ouattara, a U.S.-educated economist who worked for the International Monetary Fund, was appointed prime minister by Houphouet-Boigny in 1990, but was outmaneuvered in the fight for succession after Houphouet-Boigny's 1993 death.

Before last's year's presidential election, which was supposed to unite the country, Gbagbo's slogan, "We win or we win," belied his stated willingness to give up power. Some analysts say the overconfident Gbagbo was stunned by a defeat he failed to predict.


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