Gbagbo's refusal to cede power sparks brutal assault on bunker

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The former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo was under siege last night in a bunker below the presidential residence in Abidjan after he broke off negotiations on his departure from the country.

After many hours of artillery and small-arms fire, forces loyal to his internationally recognised successor appear to have failed to overcome diehard units of the presidential bodyguard.

"As I understand it, they tried to take Gbagbo residence this morning. The assault failed," a western military source told Reuters. "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."

Senior officers in forces loyal to Mr Gbagbo had accepted defeat yesterday morning after their tanks and artillery were destroyed by United Nations and French forces on Tuesday. However, Mr Gbagbo broke off negotiations with the UN and Ivorian officials rather than sign a document accepting the internationally recognised victory in elections last November of his rival, Alassane Ouattara.

Forces loyal to Mr Ouattara, involved in bloody street-fighting since they entered Abidjan late last week, began to storm the presidential residence in mid-morning. Mr Gbagbo's spokesman in Europe claimed that French forces had supplied air and artillery support for the siege, but this was denied by France.

Mr Gbagbo's influential wife, Simone, the couple's daughters and other members of their entourage are believed to be in the bunker with the ex-president.

According to French media reports, Mr Gbagbo had at one point accepted surrender terms, but broke off the talks under pressure from his wife.

In a brief interview with French radio yesterday, Mr Gbagbo, speaking from his bunker, dismissed talk of negotiations on his departure. "My departure from where? To go where?" he asked, sounding badly rattled.

According to French media reports, the negotiations involved immunity from prosecution and the unfreezing of the Gbagbo family's funds abroad, blocked by international sanctions.

The sticking point, however, seems to have been an insistence by Mr Ouattara that Mr Gbagbo must recognise his election victory. Without such a written agreement, the Ouattara side fears, Mr Gbagbo will be able to pose as a martyr and direct a continuing civil war from abroad.

Witnesses said that heavy artillery and small arms fire raged around the presidential residence for several hours, but had ceased by early afternoon.

Mr Gbagbo's Paris-based adviser Toussaint Alain accused President Nicolas Sarkozy of trying to "assassinate" him. "France will be held responsible for the death of President Gbagbo, his wife and family members and all those who are inside the residence, which is being bombarded by the French army," Mr Alain said.

A spokesman for the 1,600-strong French force in Ivory Coast, the Force Licorne, said that they had taken no part in yesterday's siege. Under a UN resolution, the spokesman said, the French troops were authorised only to "protect civilians" and to attack heavy military units which were threatening them.

"The fighting is terrible here, the explosions are so heavy my building is shaking," Alfred Kouassi, who lives near Mr Gbagbo's residence, 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."

In Paris, the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppé, told parliament that Mr Gbagbo must take responsibility for yesterday's siege. "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," Mr Juppé said.

A Gbagbo spokesman, Ahoua Don Mello, told Reuters: "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."

In an interview with Radio France Internationale, Mr Gbagbo denied that he had ever considered a deal to allow him to leave the country.

Earlier he told LCI television in France that he would only accept direct talks with Mr Ouattara. He rejected suggestions that he had a death wish.

"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," he said.