Ivory Coast crisis appears hours from end as troops enter Gbagbo's palace

Forces loyal to Ivory Coast President-elect Alassane Ouattara have stormed the presidential palace and pledged to capture former President Laurent Gbagbo, a day after negotiations for Gbagbo's surrender broke down.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Soldiers loyal to Alassane Ouattara point to men they claim to recognize among several dozen prisoners captured during fighting and patrols in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Wednesday, April 6. Heavy arms fire rang out Wednesday near the home of the country's strongman who remained holed up in a subterranean bunker, as forces backing his rival assaulted the residence to try to force him out, diplomats and witnesses said.

Forces loyal to Ivory Coast President-elect Alassane Ouattara entered the presidential palace Wednesday to capture former President Laurent Gbagbo, who still refuses to surrender despite being trapped in a basement bunker.

Spokesmen for Mr. Ouattara say troops are under orders to take Mr. Gbagbo alive, while Gbagbo himself told French television by telephone that he was ready to die, if it came to that.

Once West Africa’s most prosperous functioning democracy, the Ivory Coast has devolved into all-out civil war with hundreds and possibly thousands of casualties since Gbagbo refused to step down after losing the Nov. 28 presidential election.

"I do not recognize the victory of Ouattara," Gbagbo told the French news channel LCI on Tuesday, adding: "I find it absolutely astounding that the life of a country is being played like a poker game in foreign capitals."

But while French troops have seized control of the city's airport, destroyed weapons depots, and attacked key positions of troops loyal to Gbagbo, it is Ivorians themselves now attempting to wedge Gbagbo from his bunker in the presidential palace.

Outside, troops of the pro-Ouattara Republican Forces of Ivory Coast (FRCI) have reportedly stormed the gates of the complex and may be within hours of capturing Gbagbo.

“At the current moment they have not yet captured Gbagbo, but it will happen soon,” Affoussy Bamba, a Ouattara spokeswoman, said Wednesday morning on France24 television. "They opened the gates and noted that the residence is surrounded by heavy weaponry. Now the objective is to capture him."

The stalemate, and the international response to the stalemate, have exposed a deep divide among Africans about the role of the international community on their continent.

Before the conflict came to a head this week, human rights activists had been called for the United Nations to intervene swiftly in Ivory Coast to protect the lives of civilians, who were increasingly being targeted by the armed forces loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara. But the African Union itself was pleading for more time to resolve the crisis through negotiation, potentially through a power-sharing agreement between Ouattara and Gbagbo, a deal that neither of the two men was willing to discuss.

In the end, it may have been the forceful intervention of French and UN troops against Gbagbo’s forces that allowed Ouattara’s troops to take full control of Abidjan, the nation’s commercial hub, and to make their final assault on the presidential palace. Many of Gbagbo’s supporters have cried foul, citing France’s former role as Ivory Coast’s colonial ruler, but Western leaders say the intervention was purely humanitarian.

"[Gbagbo's] obstinacy is absurd,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told French Info radio. “Gbagbo has no future henceforth. Everybody's dropped him. He's holed up in his residence. With the United Nations, which is at the helm, we are going to continue to exert pressure on him to face up to reality."

Gbagbo spokesman Toussant Alain, who is not at the presidential palace, told the Associated Press that Ivory Coast would hold France accountable if Gbagbo is killed during the assault, alleging that France was leading the attack. The French military has denied that it is taking part in the assault.

In Washington, President Obama on Tuesday said he welcomed the French presence in Ivory Coast and called on Gbagbo to give up.

“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.

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