Forces loyal to Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara launched a heavy attack today on the bunker where Laurent Gbagbo is holed up but appeared to have been repelled, a Western military source said.
Fighting raged for a third straight day in the economic capital Abidjan as Ouattara's forces tried to unseat Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power after losing a November election to Ouattara, according to UN-certified results.
The source, who lives near Gbagbo's heavily defended residence in Abidjan, said fighting had died down in the afternoon and Ouattara's forces had regrouped.
"As I understand it, they tried to take Gbagbo residence this morning. The assault failed," said the source, speaking on condition of anonimity.
"They could not break through the resistance from all the heavy weapons still hidden around Gbagbo's residence. They pulled back to rethink and replan."
A spokeswoman for Ouattara denied that his forces had retreated but could not provide any details about the ongoing assault and could not say whether fighting continued.
Residents had earlier reported gunfire from heavy weapons around the residence, which is guarded by youth militias and Gbagbo's presidential guard.
"The fighting is terrible here, the explosions are so heavy my building is shaking," resident Alfred Kouassi told Reuters.
"We can hear automatic gunfire and also the thud of heavy weapons. There's shooting all over the place. Cars are speeding in all directions and so are the fighters," he said.
He could see French tanks in the street but did not know whether they were taking part in the offensive.
The French military said their troops were not involved in the attack, unlike earlier in the week when French and UN helicopter airstrikes backed the rebels' advance into Abidjan.
The fighting resumed early today after negotiations led by the United Nations and France to secure Gbagbo's departure failed, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
"The negotiations which were carried out for hours yesterday between the entourage of Laurent Gbagbo and Ivorian authorities have failed because of Gbagbo's intransigence," Juppe told parliament in Paris.
He had earlier said Gbagbo had "no future" and that it was "absurd" for him to hang on.
The former colonial power in Ivory Coast, France has taken a leading role in talks to persuade Gbagbo to hand over to Ouattara and end a four-month standoff over the contested election in November.
Ouattara's forces had earlier tried to storm Gbagbo's residence, but locals said Gbagbo's militiamen put up a stiff resistance, even as most soldiers from the regular army had heeded a call to lay down their arms.
Despite the fighting, desperate civilians in the north of the city ventured outside to hunt for water and food.
"We haven't slept, we haven't eaten, we've had nothing to drink. We are all going to die," said 17-year-old Mariam.
Gbagbo has ruled Ivory Coast since 2000. Negotiations to persuade him to quit stalled after he resisted international pressure to sign a document renouncing his claim to power.
"If Gbagbo has refused to sign the documents they (UN and France) presented to him yesterday, it is because they proposed something that had no legal and judicial basis," Gbagbo's spokesman Ahoua Don Mello told Reuters today.
He later said that Gbagbo wanted a ceasefire and direct talks with his rival Ouattara. "France and the UN want Gbagbo to leave first, but that's not possible. The solution can only be political, not military," he said.
A defiant Gbagbo, who has refused to recognise Ouattara's victory in the November presidential polls, had earlier denied reports he was ready to surrender.
"We are not at the negotiating stage. And my departure from where? To go where?" Gbagbo told French radio RFI today.
Gbagbo had told French television channel LCI his army had only called for a ceasefire after its weaponry was destroyed by French and UN air strikes on Monday.
"I'm not a kamikaze. I love life. My voice is not the voice of a martyr, no, no, no, I'm not looking for death. It's not my aim to die," Gbagbo, told the channel by telephone.
"For peace to return to Ivory Coast, I and Ouattara, the two of us have to talk," he added.
Ouattara's forces were ordered not to kill Gbagbo.
"Alassane Ouattara has given formal instructions that Gbagbo is to be kept alive because we want to bring him to justice," Ouattara spokesman Patrick Achi told Reuters.
France's intervention in its former colony has infuriated Gbagbo, who blames Paris for supporting the north of the country in the civil war of 2002-03, and it comes at a tense time for French diplomacy after President Nicolas Sarkozy's spearheading of the West's military response to the crisis in Libya.
"We accuse France of seeking to assassinate president Gbagbo," said Gbagbo's spokesman in Paris, Toussaint Alain.
Last year's long-delayed election in the world's top cocoa producing nation was meant to draw a line under the civil war, but Gbagbo's refusal to give up power has plunged the country into violence that has killed more than 1,500 people.
The International Criminal Court prosecutor said on Tuesday he was in talks with West African states about referring alleged atrocities in the Ivory Coast to the court after a reported massacre in the west of the country.
Cocoa prices were little changed on Wednesday as traders were confident that Gbagbo's expected exit would allow a swift resumption of exports. The country's defaulted $2.3 billion Eurobond rose to a fresh four-month high on Wednesday on raised expectations of repayment.Reuse content