ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Residents of Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan reported heavy fighting Thursday between forces loyal to Ivory Coast's internationally recognized president, Alassane Ouattara, and troops backing incumbent strongman Laurent Gbagbo.
A spokeswoman for Ouattara said in an interview with EuroNews (see below) that his forces intended to seize Gbagbo alive. Gbagbo remains holed up in the bunker beneath the official presidential residence in the Abidjan suburb of Cocody.
Ouattara's fighters met unexpected fire from heavy artillery at the presidential residence. Apparently the French and United Nations air strikes earlier this week did not knock out the large guns at the presidential residence so the unit protecting Gbagbo is heavily armed.
There also appears to be disunity within Ouattara's forces with some generals wanting to fight to get Gbagbo out and others wanting to pull back.
Abidjan is gripped by a terrifying lawless situation in which former Gbagbo forces are roaming the city, robbing and shooting people. Residents of Abidjan, a city of 4 million, have hidden in their homes for days. Many have run out of food and water and are going out for provisions, but many are being shot at by snipers.
Uniformed soldiers from Gbagbo's forces have twice invaded the Novotel Hotel in downtown Abidjan. The armed soldiers kidnapped four people from the hotel. residents The soldiers also robbed the hotel front desk and the restaurant of money and food. Those in the hotel, including journalists, fear the soldiers will return to the hotel again.
French forces, meantime, hit military vehicles belonging to Gbagbo troops during a helicopter-borne mission that rescued Japan's ambassador. The French went in after the soldiers broke into the residence, where ambassador Yoshifumi Okamura and his staff had taken shelter inside a safe room, Reuters reported.
Gbagbo lost the presidential election to Ouattara in November, but he has refused to give up power despite international diplomatic efforts and ongoing violence in the country.
Ouattara wants to capture Gbagbo alive to prosecute him for violent acts committed since the election.
A Gbagbo adviser told Reuters that Ouattara's forces renewed their attack on the bunker with support from U.N. and French helicopters, though this information could not be independently verified, it states.
The United Nations and France launched a military campaign against Gbagbo's forces, who were accused of attacking U.N. peacekeepers and civilians, on Monday. The offensive forced Gbagbo to retreat into a bunker under his residence with his family, and there was speculation that his surrender was imminent.
Diplomatic negotiations to get Gbagbo to surrender were abandoned Wednesday because the leader stubbornly rejected all offers, according to French Prime Minister Alain Juppe.
Gbagbo's forces repelled a sustained assault on his bunker Wednesday. Carrying automatic weapons and approaching the compound in pickup trucks modified to carry heavy machine guns, troops fighting for Ouattara attempted to storm the official residence where Gbagbo is sheltered in the fortified basement.
As Gbagbo's generals have ordered troops to surrender and the residence is protected by a small band of guards, many expected Gbagbo would be flushed out of his hideout.
But Ouattara's troops faced stiff resistance from inside the property's walls, where Gbagbo's supporters are dug in with mortars and rocket launchers. Ouattara's troops made it as far as the gate of the presidential mansion Gbagbo has occupied for the last decade. They attacked it with a barrage of fire, and residents reported hearing concussive blasts. They breached the property's perimeter only to be forced to retreat in the face of the heavy artillery unleashed by the ruler's inner circle of guards.
After several hours of fighting the sounds of battle died away.
A defiant Gbagbo denied he was hiding in the bunker, speaking by phone to French radio.
"I am in the residence — the residence of the president of the republic. When it rains, can't one take shelter inside one's house?" said Gbagbo.
He had earlier denied he was surrendering, saying he was only negotiating a truce.
Aid organizations are warning that the ongoing crisis could create a humanitarian crisis in Abidjan, where people have been trapped in their homes for days, as well as in neighboring countries. About 100,000 Ivorian refugees have fled to Liberia and are living in "dire conditions in jungle villages," CNN reports.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has warned that the conflict and its subsequent displacement of upwards of one million people could destabilize all of West Africa.
“It is absolutely essential to support Liberia in order to avoid any kind of destabilization that the situation in Cote d’Ivoire might have over the very successful, until now, Liberian process of peace-building and democratic buildup," Guterres told Voice of America. "But, there is a concern in relation to the possible spillover of the conflict. Let us hope this will not be the case and I hope also that the conflict ends quickly in order for this kind of effects to be contained because a prolongation of this conflict in Cote d’Ivoire could have a major destabilizing effect in the whole of West Africa.”