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Ivory Coast fighters tighten circle around defiant Gbagbo

Standoff may be near end amid battles at palace

By Rukmini Callimachi and Marco Chown Oved
Associated Press / April 2, 2011

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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Laurent Gbagbo’s 10-year grip on the Ivory Coast seemed to be in its final hours yesterday after fighters encircled both his residence and the presidential palace and battled to unseat the man who has refused to recognize his defeat in last year’s election.

Even in the face of a rapid military advance that has swept across Ivory Coast, the world’s largest cocoa producer, and arrived at his doorstep, Gbagbo rejected calls to step down.

His aides defiantly said they will never give in, even though nearly 80 percent of the country and now large swaths of its largest city are controlled by an armed group fighting to install the internationally recognized winner of the election, Alassane Ouattara.

“There is no question of ceding,’’ said Gbagbo’s presidential aide, Fred Anderson. “It’s not up to the international community to impose our leader.’’

In the Cocody neighborhood where the presidential mansion is located, families slept in bathrooms and on the floor as successive blasts punctuated the all-night assault.

People living near the presidential palace a few miles to the west were awakened by a barrage of explosions, some so strong they made the walls of buildings tremble.

During the day, machine-gun fire could be heard at either end of the waterside highway leading to the palace. It is strategically located on a peninsula surrounded on all sides by a lagoon, and military vehicles mounted with rocket launchers sped by while Mi-24 helicopters circled.

Gbagbo had delayed the November election for five years, canceling it every year only to promise, but fail, to hold it the next.

Ouattara’s victory with 54 percent of the vote was recognized first by the country’s electoral commission and then by the United Nations, which pored over thousands of tally sheets before certifying the results. He has been recognized by governments around the world, and leaders from US President Obama to French President Nicolas Sarkozy have made personal appeals to Gbagbo to step down.

“This turn of events is a direct consequence of the intransigence of the outgoing president, Mr. Laurent Gbagbo, who has repeatedly refused to heed calls for him to cede the reins of power in the country to the president-elect, Mr. Alassane Ouattara,’’ said a statement yesterday by the regional Economic Community of West African States.

Gbagbo, 65, has not been seen in public since the offensive began five days ago, but those in his inner circle say he is still in Abidjan and will fight until the end. It’s unclear where he is holed up, with Ouattara’s camp speculating he is in a bunker in the palace.

Reached by telephone, however, one of Gbagbo’s closest associates, Foreign Minister Alcide Djeje, said he was at Gbagbo’s side at the presidential residence in Cocody.

Cocody resident Yeo N’Dri said yesterday that he could see a thick column of smoke rising from the area where the residence is located. Abidjan was at a standstill, with people barricaded indoors.

The few cars on the streets had their emergency lights flashing. Some drivers held their right hand on the wheel and their left hand pointed outside to signal that they aren’t armed.

Ouattara ordered land and sea borders closed to seal all the exits in case Gbagbo attempts to flee, said Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Marie Kacou-Gervais.

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