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'Last stand' at palace in battle for Ivory Coast

The International Committee of the Red Cross said today that more than 800 people were killed on Tuesday in intercommunal violence in the Ivory Coast town of Duekoue.

Meanwhile, the struggle for power in Ivory Coast appeared to be approaching a bloody and chaotic denouement last night with conflicting reports on the whereabouts of the veteran leader Laurent Gbagbo.

Meanwhile, pro-Ouattara fighters encircled both Gbagbo's residence and the presidential palace in a battle to unseat the man who has refused to recognise his defeat in last year's election.

Supporters of the incumbent Mr Gbagbo, who refused to accept defeat in a presidential election last November, said that he was preparing a last stand in a presidential palace in the city of Abidjan after a lightning advance on the city by forces loyal to the internationally recognised president, Alassane Ouattara.

"For his ideas, he will go to the end," Mr Gbagbo's European ambassador and adviser, Toussaint Alain, said in Paris. "He has no intention of standing down or giving up his power."

French officials said that Mr Gbagbo, and his influential wife, Simone, were believed to be in the presidential palace in one of the few parts of the city not yet captured by the pro-Ouattara units of a divided Ivorian army. Other reports suggested that he has escaped to a "secure location" elsewhere in Ivory Coast. Mr Alain said that Mr Gbagbo would soon make a televised address to the nation. However, the state television station, scene of some of the most violent fighting in Abidjan, ceased to broadcast yesterday morning.

According to reports in French media, the final broadcasts were a bizarre mélange of previews of episodes of Desperate Housewives and repeats of an apparently amateur video showing Mr Gbagbo chatting calmly with supporters and his wife. Artillery and light-arms fire were reported close to Mr Gbagbo's residence and presidential palace. Two large military bases were also reported to be under attack, turning Ivory Coast's commercial capital into a war zone.

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. Two white MI-24 attack helicopters flown by the United Nations peacekeeping mission circled above the city but made no attempt to intervene.

Mr Gbagbo has refused to stand down after elections on 28 November, which the UN and international observers said was a clear victory for Mr Ouattara. The President alleged that he was the victim of a "French coup". Mr Gbagbo, in power since 2000, was supposed to call elections in 2005. He delayed them until 2010, claiming that the country was too instable for an election campaign.

After weeks of stand-off following the disputed November result, Mr Gbagbo's position has collapsed politically and militarily in the past few days. Several senior political and military figures have defected and army units loyal to Mr Ouattara have swept south and into Abidjan almost unopposed.

The UN, which has previously criticised human rights violations by Mr Gbagbo's forces and loyalists, warned yesterday that it had reports of abuses by the pro-Ouattara forces in the west of the country. If reports of abductions, beatings and killings of pro-Gbagbo civilians are confirmed, it would deepen international fears that Ivory Coast may plunge into a bloody and prolonged revival of its 2002-03 civil war.

The UN peacekeeping mission said yesterday that its headquarters was attacked by Mr Gbagbo's special forces on Thursday. UN soldiers returned fire over a period of about three hours. Hundreds of foreigners, a majority of them French, have taken refuge in a French military camp after violent looting broke out in the Deux Plateaux suburb. Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters that witnesses had reported "numerous" civilians shot down by sniper fire by pro-Gbagbo forces. At least two foreigners, a Swedish UN worker and a French academic, were reported to have been killed in crossfire. Amnesty International said that the city was "on the brink of... total chaos".

Bitter rivalry spanning three decades

* Ivory Coast's warring presidential claimants have a long history of bitter rivalry. The incumbent Laurent Gbagbo rose to prominence as a Marxist firebrand and stood for office in 1990 in the nation's first multiparty elections, which kept the post-colonial strongman Felix Houphouet-Boigny in power. His death in 1993 sparked the long political tussle still playing out today. Gbagbo remained in opposition through one disputed election and a coup, before being declared president in 2000. Alassane Ouattara served as a prime minister under Houphouet-Boigny before leaving the country. He returned in 1999 to run in the election the next year, but was barred from contesting the poll. Soon after, fighting broke out. The past decade has seen civil war and a brief stab at power-sharing, but divisions remained, erupting again after last November's disputed election.

Independent staff contributed to this report