ABIDJAN, Apr 1 – Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo, cornered in Abidjan by rival forces, faced being forcibly ousted Friday as he missed a deadline set by recognised leader Alassane Ouattara to cede power.
Amid reports of heavy fighting near Gbagbo\’s residence and presidential palace in what a resident described as a possible final assault, a spokesman for Ouattara\’s defence minister Captain Leon Kouakou Alla told AFP forces loyal to Ouattara had seized control of the country\’s RTI state television.
"We took RTI, the Republican Forces are at RTI," Alla said.
Several residents contacted by AFP confirmed that the television station was no longer broadcasting.
As a 1900 GMT Thursday deadline set for Gbagbo to resign came and went, Gbagbo, deserted by his army chief, police and generals, faced a final showdown as Ouattara\’s army encircled the capital.
"Laurent Gbagbo must step down to avoid a bloodbath. Hopefully he will or we will go and fetch him," Ouattara\’s prime minister Guillaume Soro told AFP in a telephone interview from Yamoussoukro.
He said that if Gbagbo did not resign after 10 years in power, and four months spent clinging to a presidency the world says he lost, "we will go and fetch him and he will face international prosecution".
Residents told AFP about "heavy arms fighting in the area of Gbagbo\’s residence," in the upmarket Cocody district in northern Abidjan.
Fighting began less than a kilometre from the residence, near the Mermoz university city where support for Gbagbo is strong, and later spread from the area where RTI state television also has its headquarters, he said.
"It looks like a final assault" on Gbagbo, he added.
A resident who was holed up at his home saw "a convoy of 2,000-3,000 people on foot and then dozens of cars without their headlights on".
Heavy weapons fire could be heard coming from the area surrounding strongman Laurent Gbagbo\’s Cocody residence.
Gbagbo "must go, this is the goal," said Alla. "We therefore have to take the presidential palace in the (central) Plateau district and the presidential residence at Cocody"."
Heavy arms fire could also be heard in the Plateau district for about 30 minutes after midnight.
Gbagbo\’s residence is mainly protected by heavily armed members of the elite presidential guard.
Ouattara\’s camp had announced a curfew each night from 2100 to 0600 GMT through Sunday.
The United States called on Gbagbo to accept the ultimatum, saying it was waiting to hear whether he will address the nation.
"We are looking forward to him taking an action that is in the best interests of the people of Cote D\’Ivoire by avoiding war and stepping down and honouring the results of the election," a White House spokesman said using the country\’s French name.
As Gbagbo\’s regime appeared to crumble, UN peacekeepers took over the airport and Ouattara urged soldiers to join his army.
"There is still time to join your brothers. The country is calling you," said Ouattara, who has been unable to take power since being elected in November, leading to a bloody crisis which has left 494 people dead, according to the UN.
Gbagbo\’s army chief and key ally General Philippe Mangou fled to the South African ambassador\’s residence with his wife and five children, and a UN envoy reported police and gendarmes had deserted the embattled leader.
Speaking in a televised address, Ouattara said his troops were at the gates of Abidjan, a city of four million people and Gbagbo\’s last remaining stronghold.
In Paris, Ouattara-appointed Ivorian ambassador Ally Coulibaly said Gbagbo would come to no "physical" harm.
"I know what kind of man (Ouattara) is, he does not want Laurent Gbagbo to be touched. He has told me so and I know it is what he thinks," said Coulibaly, considered one of Ouattara\’s closest advisers.
Heavy weapons and machine gunfire were heard around the deserted administrative district of Plateau where the presidential palace is based and also at a massive military camp in the city, AFP journalists reported.
Prisoners in the country\’s biggest jail were also released into the West African city after their jailers apparently fled, and French forces were deployed into a suburb which is home to many Europeans, after widespread looting, sources said.
State television earlier said Gbagbo was at his home in Cocody and would "address his fellow citizens in the coming hours".
Soro told French television rebel forces were "encircling" Abidjan to drive Gbagbo from power.
"We will hold this position until the defections take place and the transition of power to Alassane Dramane Ouattara is effected," he said.
"There are already several generals who have joined our side. I have been in touch with several generals who have agreed to do so. In the coming hours and minutes they will make public declarations," he said.
Pro-Ouattara fighters have in two days seized the political capital Yamoussoukro and the world\’s biggest cocoa exporting port of San Pedro, as the United Nations slapped fresh sanctions on Gbagbo and called for him to cede power, which he has held since 2000.
Ivory Coast is the world\’s top cocoa producer and exporter but the industry has been strangled by international sanctions trying to choke off Gbagbo\’s economic power and force him to step down from the presidency.