ABIDJAN, Apr 6 – Weapons fire erupted Wednesday at Laurent Gbagbo\’s residence as forces for Ivory Coast\’s internationally recognised leader Alassane Ouattara said they were going to "fetch" him from his bunker.
Witnesses said gunfire rang out both near the presidential palace and Gbagbo\’s residence in an apparent bid to bounce him into ending to his decade-long rule of the world\’s number one cocoa producer.
"We are going to take Laurent Gbagbo out of his hole and hand him over to the president of the republic," said Sidiki Konate, spokesman for Ouattara\’s forces.
"We are going to his residence to fetch him and put an end to this comedy …This charade must end because the country is collapsing," he said.
Gbagbo was holed up in his residence in the northern suburb Cocody, refusing to surrender.
"We are hearing strong explosions and bursts of machine gun fire around the residence," a resident said.
France, the west African nation\’s former colonial power, said Gbagbo had been seeking guarantees on his own safety before finally throwing in the towel but negotiations to persuade him to surrender have failed.
Even before the new deadlock in attempts to end a four-month post-election stand-off, Gbagbo had rejected demands that he recognise Ouattara as president.
"I do not recognise the victory of Ouattara…. Why would you want me to sign this?" Gbagbo said in an interview with France\’s LCI news channel late Tuesday, referring to a document in which France and the United Nations urge him to quit.
In the same interview, Gbagbo said that while he did not regard himself as "martyr", he was prepared to die. "If death comes, it comes," he said.
France, whose helicopters joined UN forces in attacking Gbagbo\’s bases earlier in the week, indicated earlier that an exit deal was all but finalised.
"We have asked the United Nations to guarantee his physical security and that of his family… and to organise the conditions of his departure. That is the only thing left to negotiate," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told France Info radio.
French armed forces chief Edouard Guillaud said the negotiations had continued overnight and he believed Gbagbo\’s departure would come in "a matter of hours."
Guillaud said the strongman had been on the verge of surrender last Friday and again on Monday but had at the last moment changed his mind.
As reports of atrocities emerged from fighting in a western Ivory Coast town last week, the UN said it believed "several hundred" people were killed in massacres and one mass grave had almost 200 bodies.
The mass killings were in the town of Duekoue, seized by Ouattara\’s army last week in a lightning offensive across the country.
"It appears that several hundred civilians were killed in at least two separate incidents and many others may have been killed in direct fighting between armed militias," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
In Abidjan, citizens anxiously awaited news of a possible end to the Gbagbo era, as pro-Ouattara television station TCI played extracts from "Downfall", a film about the final days of Hitler.
United Nations mission UNOCI said Gbagbo\’s closest advisers had deserted him.
"With a handful of persons, he is known to have retreated to the basement bunker of the presidential residence," a UNOCI statement said.
US President Barack Obama urged the embattled incumbent to step down immediately and voiced strong support for French and UN military efforts.
"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.
UN Security Council resolution 1975 adopted on March 30 ordered sanctions against Gbagbo to push him to leave and also said the UN force should protect civilians and prevent use of heavy weapons.
Gbagbo\’s army chief General Philippe Mangou told AFP he had called for a ceasefire.
This would allow for the "protection of the population, soldiers, the Republican Guard ensuring the president\’s security, the president himself and his family, and members of government," he added.
The UN mission said its troops had been ordered to offer protection to members of Gbagbo\’s army who have laid down their arms.
The African Union\’s Peace and Security Council meanwhile condemned "abuses" in Ivory Coast.
Gbagbo was elected in 2000 and postponed polls due in 2005 before allowing them to go ahead last year, only to reject the ruling of the election authority that he had lost to long-time rival Ouattara.
Months of fighting have also seen up to a million people flee their homes in Abidjan and elsewhere, many of them into neighbouring countries, UN agencies have said, warning of a humanitarian disaster.