Rebel forces in Ivory Coast have laid siege to the presidential residence in Abidjan as the incumbent leader, Laurent Gbagbo, makes a desperate last stand to cling to power.
Forces backing presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara have overrun nearly 80% of the country as soldiers fled and towns fell in quick succession. They look set for a final push but are encountering strong resistance at the fortified presidential residence. Ouattara’s spokesman, Patrick Achi, told Reuters: “His house is under attack. That’s for sure. There is a resistance, but it’s under attack. “[Gbagbo] hasn’t shown any signs of giving up. I don’t think he will see the game is up, because he really believes God will save him … Gbagbo is in his house. I’m certain. He hasn’t gone anywhere.”
The regular army put up almost no opposition during a four-day offensive, including in the ruler’s hometown, where rebels said they broke into Gbagbo’s compound and slept in his bed. Some 50,000 soldiers, police and gendarmes have abandoned Gbagbo, according to the head of the UN mission, Choi Young-jin. “Only the Republican Guard and his special forces have remained loyal, guarding the palace and residence,” he told France-Info.
Gunfire could be heard throughout Abidjan on Thursday, along with the concussive boom of heavy artillery. Reporters saw soldiers in camouflage race across the waterside highway in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns. UN and French peacekeepers moved to secure Abidjan airport by sending armed elements and additional personnel there, a UN official in New York said. Sources said Gbagbo’s forces requested the UN support to allow their withdrawal.
An internal UN report, seen by Reuters, also said pro-Gbagbo forces had abandoned a blockade of a hotel where Ouattara and his supporters have been camped for months. It said peacekeepers had exchanged fire with Gbagbo loyalists in several parts of the city. As his forces amassed on the outskirts of Abidjan, Ouattara made a final appeal to Gbagbo to step down, and called on the rest of the army to defect. “[My fighters[ have come to restore democracy and ensure respect of the vote by the people,” Ouattara said in an address broadcast on his private TV station. “Today they are at the doorstep of Abidjan.
“To all those who are still hesitating, whether you are generals, superior officers, officers, sub officers, rank and file … there is still time to join your brothers in arms.” As the columns of pro-Ouattara forces advanced, the head of the army, general Phillippe Mangou, sought refuge at the home of the South African ambassador in Abidjan with his wife and five children, according to South Africa’s foreign ministry.
Ouattara was declared the winner of last November’s presidential election by the country’s election commission in results verified by international observers. But after a decade in power, Gbagbo, a Sorbonne-educated history professor, refused to accept his loss.
He has used the military to attack pro-Ouattara areas with heavy artillery and is accused of arming citizen militias and recruiting foreign mercenaries to cling to power. Up to a million people have fled the fighting and at least 490 people have been killed since the election, most of them supporters of Ouattara. The true figure is believed to be far higher, with the Red Cross warning that casualties run into thousands.
Gbagbo has not been seen in public since this week’s military offensive began, even though state TV announced on Wednesday that he was preparing to address the nation. Those who know him well say even an armed onslaught will not make Gbagbo cede power. “He has no intention of resigning,” said one of his advisers in Europe, Toussaint Alain. “He will not resign in the wake of this attack. He is not going to abdicate. He is not going to lay down his arms. He will stay in power to lead the resistance to this attack against Ivory Coast.”
However, a senior diplomat who has been in contact with members of Gbagbo’s inner circle told the Associated Press that a standoff appeared to be building between hardliners who want Gbagbo to fight to the end and others who are urging him to step down. It is not clear what the pro-Ouattara fighters will do if they manage to reach the presidential palace. Ouattara’s spokesman refused to speculate, but said the use of force was necessary because Gbagbo has frustrated all attempts to find a diplomatic solution.
“The end is almost here,” Achi said. “It’s a matter of hours. We issued our ultimatum yesterday … If Gbagbo does not want the fighting to happen in Abidjan, he should surrender. If he doesn’t, we have no choice.” Ouattara’s “government” announced a three-day overnight curfew and ordered the closure of land, air and sea borders. There were widespread reports of looting.
On Thursday, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, reiterated his demand that Gbagbo immediately cede power to Ouattara “to enable the full transition of state institutions to the legitimate authorities,” said spokesman Farhan Haq. In Washington, the leading US diplomat for Africa, Johnnie Carson, said Gbagbo needed to seize this last opportunity to step aside. “There is a clear indication that the military forces of Gbagbo have started to disintegrate,” he said.
“The rapid pace at which Alassane Ouattara’s forces have been able to move across the country from east to west and up to Abidjan suggests that there have been widespread desertions in the Gbagbo forces.” Ouattara’s fighters are drawn largely from a rebel group based in the north of the country that launched a 2002 rebellion against Gbagbo. For more than three months, Ouattara refused to allow them to march on Abidjan. The advance was a last resort after all other diplomatic means had failed, Ouattara’s supporters claim.