- Troops loyal to Alassance Ouattara have been told not to kill Laurent Gbagbo
Forces opposed to Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo have launched a final assault on his presidential residence.
He has been negotiating departure terms with the UN while under siege by troops loyal to his rival Alassane Ouattara.
But France’s foreign minister said talks had failed, blaming Mr Gbagbo. Gunfire and fighting have been heard at Mr Gbagbo’s residence in Abidjan.
Mr Gbagbo insists he won November’s run-off vote, but election officials found Mr Ouattara was the winner.
That result was certified by the UN, but Mr Gbagbo has refused to leave office.
Mr Gbagbo and his family are believed to be sheltering in the bunker of the presidential residence, which was controlled by his troops.
Troops ‘in the building’
Two days of heavy fighting stopped late on Tuesday and negotiations with Mr Gbagbo carried on throughout the night.
But by Wednesday morning it appeared the patience of pro-Ouattara forces had run out.
“We are going to get Laurent Gbagbo out of his hole and hand him over to the president of the Republic,” said Sidiki Konate, spokesman of Mr Ouattara’s prime minister, Guillaume Soro.
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Mr Gbagbo’s “intransigence” had caused talks to fail.
“The conditions set by President Ouattara are very clear: he demands that Laurent Gbagbo accepts his defeat and recognises the victory of the legitimately elected president,” he told parliament.
“That’s where we stand today, so sadly the arms have begun to talk again.”
French and UN troops are attempting to maintain security around Abidjan under the terms of a UN Security Council resolution, but Mr Juppe said they were not involved in the offensive against Mr Gbagbo.
At the scene
Laurent Gbagbo, cornered in a presidential bunker and faced with the defection of his generals, had been trying to negotiate his way out of trouble.
His surrender seemed imminent. “I want to live,” he told French television.
But over the past few hours we have heard the boom of heavy artillery in the city and confirmation that Mr Gbagbo’s residence is being stormed.
A negotiated ending might have helped ease tensions in this bitterly divided country. Now there is the risk of greater instability.
Civilians still trapped in Abidjan say there has been sporadic gunfire across the city with pro-Gbagbo militias still on the streets and growing fears of revenge killings.
Affousy Bamba, a spokeswoman for troops backing Mr Ouattara, told Reuters news agency: “Yes they [Ouattara forces] are in the process of entering the residence to seize Gbagbo.
“They have not taken him yet, but they are in the process. They are in the building.”
A resident who lives close to Mr Gbagbo’s residence told Reuters of fighting and explosions.
“We can hear automatic gunfire and also the thud of heavy weapons. There’s shooting all over the place,” Alfred Kouassi said.
A spokesman for Mr Ouattara said fighters had been given strict instructions not to harm Mr Gbagbo.
Civilians under siege
There are also growing concerns about the humanitarian situation across Ivory Coast, where hundreds are believed to have died during the continuing conflict.
In Abidjan most of the city’s residents are now confined to their homes, and those who do venture out do so with great caution, often keeping their hands above their heads.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is beginning to distribute 12 tonnes of supplies to those worst-affected. The International Criminal Court says it is preparing to investigate reports of human rights abuses during the fighting
The BBC’s Andrew Harding, near Abidjan says the UN wants Mr Gbagbo to leave unharmed in order not to destabilise the country further. Mr Gbagbo still has strong support, having won 46% of the vote in the election, he adds.
Speaking by phone to French radio and sounding defiant, Mr Gbagbo denied he was hiding in a bunker.
- 28 November: Incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and challenger Alassane Ouattara in election run-off
- 2 December: Electoral commission announces that Ouattara has won
- 3 December: Constitutional Council declaring Gbagbo the winner; UN says Ouattara was victor
- 30 March: Pro-Ouattara forces enter the capital, Yamoussoukro
- 4 April: UN launches air strikes on Gbagbo in main city, Abidjan
- 5 April: Three generals negotiate Gbagbo’s surrender
“I am in the residence – the residence of the president of the republic. Now, when it rains, can’t one take shelter inside one’s house?”
Mr Gbagbo had earlier denied he was surrendering, saying he was only negotiating a truce.
“I won the election and I’m not negotiating my departure,” he said.
On Monday pro-Ouattara fighters, backed by UN and French helicopters attacked Mr Gbagbo’s military installations in Abidjan, saying they aimed to protect civilians.
Following Tuesday’s ceasefire the city passed a largely quiet night, apart from shootings blamed on gangs, but its population of four million remained indoors.
In other developments, the EU imposed fresh sanctions on Mr Gbagbo on Wednesday, banning the purchase of bonds from his “illegitimate government”.
Last November’s election was intended to reunite Ivory Coast which split in two following a northern rebellion in 2002.
The electoral commission pronounced Mr Ouattara the victor, but Ivory Coast’s Constitutional Council said Mr Gbagbo had won.
The US, the UN and the EU recognised Mr Ouattara as the winner, but both candidates had themselves sworn in as president and a stand-off ensued.
Skirmishes and battles between the rival forces have since taken place across Ivory Coast, culminating in Mr Ouattara’s troops sweeping into Abidjan at the end of March.