Takoradi, Ghana – Opposition forces in Ivory Coast said Wednesday that they had begun an assault to dislodge the nation’s strongman, Laurent Gbagbo, from a bunker under his residence after he refused French and United Nations demands to leave.
The aim was “to seize Gbagbo physically and, if he is alive, to bring him to justice,” said Apollinaire Yapi, a spokesman for Alassane Ouattara, who is recognized internationally as the winner of the presidential elections last year. Mr. Gbagbo has rejected the outcome and refused to step down, reigniting a civil war.
“The firing is very heavy,” Mr. Yapi said in a telephone interview, referring to the assault to dislodge Mr. Gbagbo.
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Mr. Gbagbo has been holed up in his bunker for two days. In an interview with French television on Wednesday, Mr. Gbagbo remained defiant even though opposing forces said they were advancing.
Asked if he was ready to leave, he said, “We’re not quite at that stage yet.”
“The army has called for an end to the fighting, especially from the French,” Mr. Gbagbo said. “Of course, that implies a general cease-fire. That’s what the army is talking about. After that, I want the politicians — the civilians — to take over and have talks about ending the crisis. Then you can ask me questions. Right now, I’m not negotiating.”
News reports, quoting Mr. Gbagbo’s representatives, said French forces had joined the assault, opening fire from helicopters and a nearby rooftop. The United Nations and France had attacked targets at his residence, his offices and two of his military bases on Monday, in what they called an effort to destroy his heavy weaponry and protect civilians.
But French officials denied that either French or United Nations forces were involved in attacks on the presidential residence on Wednesday.
“We’re not involved, and neither is Onuci,” said Bernard Valero, the French Foreign Ministry spokesman, referring to the United Nations Mission in Ivory Coast. “It is Ouattara’s guys.”
Mr. Gbagbo’s refusal to leave prompted increasing frustration among those who had been trying to negotiate his surrender.
Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, said in a radio interview in Paris that Mr. Gbagbo was displaying an “absurd” stubbornness and was isolated. “Everybody’s dropped him.”
Adm. Édouard Guillaud, the chief of staff of the French armed forces, said that he expected Mr. Gbagbo to surrender within hours. “He has no other choice,” Admiral Guillaud said.
Mr. Gbagbo’s departure would end a four-month standoff that has underscored both the strengths and limits of international diplomacy. For months, Mr. Gbagbo has angrily defied global condemnation and hard-hitting sanctions as his nation spiraled back into the kind of conflict that the elections were intended to heal.
In the end, though, it has come down to force. The international stance, taken by African and Western countries alike, greatly weakened Mr. Gbagbo’s ability to govern. But his willingness even to discuss the terms of his exit came only after opposition forces swept across the country and France and the United Nations entered the fight, striking his redoubts and two of his bases.
On Tuesday, a day after the international attacks, Mr. Juppé told a Parliament hearing that French negotiators were helping to broker Mr. Gbagbo’s surrender, demanding that he sign a document formally recognizing Mr. Ouattara as the country’s legitimate president. The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, had backed the French terms, Mr. Juppé said.
“What is going on are negotiations with Laurent Gbagbo and his family, to finalize the conditions of his departure,” he said at the time.
Diplomats said that Mr. Gbagbo appeared to believe that he still had a bargaining position, though his government and armed forces had collapsed around him.
“It’s over but he’s still trying to play games,” a senior Western diplomat in Abidjan said Tuesday night, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations were still under way. “The exact substance of what he’s trying to negotiate is foggy.”
The United Nations said Tuesday that Mr. Gbagbo’s top three generals had called “to say that an order to stop fighting was being given,” and that their troops were being told to hand in their weapons to United Nations forces and ask for their protection.
Even if Mr. Gbagbo agreed to step down, officials for Mr. Ouattara said they would insist on his being prosecuted — either at home or abroad — for the extended campaign of armed repression he waged against opponents after the election.
“He will be prosecuted,” said Mr. Yapi, the spokesman for Mr. Ouattara. “He must be prosecuted. Do we keep him here, do we send him abroad, I don’t know,” he continued, adding: “He must answer for his actions.”
It was also unclear whether Mr. Gbagbo’s supporters would accept Mr. Ouattara as president.
While President Obama said Tuesday that he strongly supported the United Nations and French strikes against Mr. Gbagbo’s military positions, saying they were part of a “mandate to protect civilians,” many Ivorians will see them as part of a Western plot to undermine the nation’s sovereignty, a theme Mr. Gbagbo has exploited to great effect over the crisis.
Throughout the crisis, international officials have warned both sides not to attack civilians, and international prosecutors have threatened to bring criminal charges, to little avail. United Nations officials have also threatened to run roadblocks and use robust force to protect civilians, but the military strikes this week stood out as a notable departure from their usual peacekeeping efforts.
Alain Le Roy, head of peacekeeping operations at the United Nations, described the use of airstrikes on Mr. Gbagbo’s forces this week as a necessity. “It was a heavy decision,” he said.
Adam Nossiter reported from Takoradi, and Alan Cowell from London. Dan Bilefsky contributed reporting from the United Nations, and Scott Sayare from Paris.