Ivory Coast leader: Not stepping down

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Ivory Coast’s strongman leader Laurent Gbagbo holed up in a bunker inside the presidential residence Tuesday, defiantly maintaining he won the election four months ago even as troops backing the internationally recognized winner encircled the home.

Gbagbo’s comments by telephone to France’s LCI television came as French officials and a diplomat said he was negotiating his departure terms after French and U.N. forces launched a military offensive Monday. Democratically elected leader Alassane Ouattara has urged his supporters to take Gbagbo alive.

Talks about Gbagbo’s departure terms were ongoing Tuesday evening directly between Gbagbo and Ouattara, according to a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Choi Young-jin, the U.N.’s top envoy in Ivory Coast, said Tuesday that Gbagbo was in discussions about where he would go, possibly suggesting the strongman may be willing to consider stepping down after more than a decade in power.

When asked by The Associated Press Television News if he was confident that Gbagbo has decided to leave, Choi said:

“Yes, because as far as I know the key elements they are negotiating is where Mr. Gbagbo would go.”

“Mr. Gbagbo has signaled for the first time since the crisis, he will accept the will of the people, the results of the election,” Choi said.

France’s foreign minister said Gbagbo would be required to relinquish power in writing after a decade as president, and must formally recognize Ouattara, the internationally backed winner of the November election that plunged the West African nation into chaos.

But Gbagbo showed no intention of leaving, declaring in his interview with French television, that Ouattara “did not win the elections” even though he was declared the victor by the U.N., African Union, United States, former colonial power France and other world leaders.

“I won the election and I am not negotiating my departure,” Gbagbo said by telephone. The French channel said the interview was conducted by phone from his residence at 1730 GMT, and lasted about 20 minutes.

United Nations and French forces opened fire with attack helicopters on Gbagbo’s arms stockpiles and bases on Monday after four months of political deadlock in the former French colony in West Africa. Columns of foot soldiers allied with Ouattara also finally pierced the city limits of Abidjan.

“One might think that we are getting to the end of the crisis,” Hamadoun Toure, spokesman for the U.N. mission to Ivory Coast said by phone. “We spoke to his close aides, some had already defected, some are ready to stop fighting. He is alone now, he is in his bunker with a handful of supporters and family members. So is he going to last or not? I don’t know.”

Toure said that the U.N. had received phone calls Tuesday from the three main Gbagbo-allied generals, saying they were planning to order their troops to stop fighting.

“They asked us to accept arms and ammunition from the troops and to provide them protection,” he said.

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