France in Talks on Surrender of Ivory Coast Strongman

Takoradi, Ghana – The French government said Tuesday that it was helping negotiate the surrender of Ivory Coast’s strongman, Laurent Gbagbo, a day after the United Nations and France struck targets at his residence, his offices and two of his military bases in a significant escalation of the international intervention into the political crisis engulfing the nation.

France’s prime minister, François Fillon, told members of Parliament that French representatives were negotiating with Ivorian generals loyal to Mr. Gbagbo, who had taken refuge in a bunker beneath his residence after a rebel assault.

French negotiators are requiring that, before departing, Mr. Gbagbo sign a document formally renouncing control of Ivory Coast and recognizing Alassane Ouattara, the man who beat him in elections last year, as the country’s legitimate president, the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, said at a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday. The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, had backed the French terms, Mr. Juppé added.

“What is going on are negotiations with Laurent Gbagbo and his family, to finalize the conditions of his departure,” he said. An aide to Mr. Gbagbo was in negotiations at the French Embassy in Abidjan, he said.

France hopes to see the United Nations and Ivorian authorities under Mr. Ouattara take charge of the “departure conditions of Gbagbo” once an agreement is reached, Mr. Juppé said.

Mr. Gbagbo’s foreign minister, Alcide Djédjé, said Mr. Gbagbo had sent him to the French ambassador’s residence to negotiate a cease-fire. Speaking on French radio from the residence afterward, Mr. Djédjé said a cease-fire was “already in place.”

The United Nations said Tuesday that Mr. Gbagbo’s three top generals had called “to say that an order to stop fighting was being given” to their troops. The troops were also ordered to hand in their weapons to United Nations forces and ask for their protection.

But the situation remained very much in flux. “It’s far from settled, but it’s close to being over,” said the American ambassador to Ivory Coast, Phillip Carter.

A spokesman for Mr. Ouattara argued that even if Mr. Gbagbo surrendered, he would be prosecuted, whether at home or abroad.

“He will be judged; he must answer for his actions,” said the spokesman, Apollinaire Yapi. But he added that it was unclear where such a trial should take place. “Do we keep him here or do we send him abroad? I don’t know.”

Mr. Yapi said that French forces were now guarding Mr. Gbagbo’s residence, after reports of heavy fighting in the hours before dawn, with news accounts and witnesses speaking of sustained machine-gun and heavy-weapons fire ringing out over the city.

France, which showed a newfound muscularity by championing military strikes against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces in Libya, attacked heavy artillery and armored vehicles at Mr. Gbagbo’s residence and presidential offices on Monday, a French military spokesman said.

The United Nations also carried out helicopter strikes against Mr. Gbagbo’s forces at two of his bases on Monday to prevent them from using the kinds of heavy weapons that have been aimed at civilians and United Nations personnel during the crisis.

President Obama said Tuesday that he strongly supported “the role that United Nations peacekeepers are playing as they enforce their mandate to protect civilians, and I welcome the efforts of French forces who are supporting that mission.”

He added that the violence “could have been averted had Laurent Gbagbo respected the results of last year’s presidential election,” and that to prevent further bloodshed Mr. Gbagbo “must stand down immediately, and direct those who are fighting on his behalf to lay down their arms.”

The international attacks coincided with a renewed assault by local troops loyal to Mr. Ouattara, the man recognized by the United Nations, the African Union and other international bodies as the winner of last year’s presidential election.

As the attacks were under way on Monday, Mr. Ouattara’s prime minister, Guillaume Soro, declared that Mr. Gbagbo’s rule was only hours away from ending.

“Our forces have made significant advances,” he said in a telephone interview. “In a few hours, it will be all over. We came into the city of Abidjan today, and I think it will soon be finished.”

International officials have long called on Mr. Gbagbo to step down, but Mr. Ban, the secretary general, took pains to say that the United Nations was “not a party to the conflict.” He said it had taken action only because forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo had used “mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns against the civilian population.”

Mr. Ban also noted that Mr. Gbagbo’s forces had fired on United Nations patrols and attacked the organization’s headquarters in Abidjan “with heavy-caliber sniper fire as well as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades,” wounding four peacekeepers.

France, Ivory Coast’s former colonial ruler, has more than 1,500 troops in the country. In a statement Monday, France said it had joined the operation there at the request of the United Nations, with the intent of “neutralizing heavy weapons that are used against the civilian population and United Nations personnel in Abidjan.”

United Nations peacekeepers have traded deadly fire with pro-Gbagbo forces before, but the latest military involvement represented a notable increase in the international effort to force Mr. Gbagbo to step down since losing the election last November.

Still, it also risked bolstering one of Mr. Gbagbo’s most potent propaganda weapons: that he is being singled out by foreign forces, notably the French and the United Nations, in an attack on Ivorian sovereignty. These ideas, repeated nightly for months on state television, have energized thousands of Gbagbo supporters and soldiers, giving them a fervor that they display over and over.

But until now, those statements did not bear any similarity with the reality on the ground.

Mr. Soro dismissed in advance suggestions that the French and United Nations offensive amounted to undue foreign interference. “They have a mandate to protect the civilian population,” he said. “Gbagbo has committed many crimes against the civilian population, so this is absolutely appropriate.”

Die-hard loyalist troops have dug in to protect Mr. Gbagbo, a former university historian who has transformed himself into a hard-line autocrat over the course of a long political career.

On Monday, about 2,000 fighters supporting Mr. Ouattara entered the city in a renewed push to oust him, his spokesmen said.

“This is the final assault,” said the spokesman, Apollinaire Yapi. “I would say this is the general offensive we anticipated. So far, the incursions have been to test Gbagbo’s forces.”

As the fighting intensified during Monday’s assault, residents described an intimidating universe of sustained gunfire and loud booms, and a fourth straight day of being unable to venture out.

Some spoke of running out of food. “We’re lying flat; the gunfire doesn’t stop,” said a resident of the Cocody neighborhood, where Mr. Gbagbo lives, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. He was sheltering not only his own five children, but also seven of a relative’s. “It’s very, very tough,” he said.

Mr. Soro said the United Nations and French attacks would curtail the combat: “The election results must be respected. The rule of law must be restored.”

Adam Nossiter reported from Takoradi, and Scott Sayare from Paris. Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Paris, Dan Bilefsky from the United Nations, and J. David Goodman from New York.

This piece “France in Talks on Surrender of Ivory Coast Strongman” ran on april 5, 2011 in The New York Times.