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Gbagbo Ivory Coast Home Under Attack As Opposition Pushes For Surrender

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IVORY COAST LAURENT GBAGBO

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Even after airstrikes pounded holes in his garden, even after fighters encircled his home and stormed the gates, Laurent Gbagbo did not budge Wednesday from the bunker where he remains holed up.

The finale of Gbagbo's 10-year claim on Ivory Coast is playing out much like the beginning. The 65-year-old strongman, who made an art of staying in power years past the end of his legal mandate, is now pushing the envelope, fighting for each day, even each hour.

"He will not surrender," said Meite Sindou, a defense spokesman for Alassane Ouattara, the man recognized worldwide as the democratically elected president of Ivory Coast. "We will have to take him."

Wednesday began with the boldest attempt yet to penetrate Gbagbo's inner sanctum as fighters loyal to Ouattara made it as far as the gate of the presidential mansion he has occupied for the last decade. They attacked it with a barrage of fire, and residents reported hearing concussive blasts.

They breached the property's perimeter only to be forced to retreat in the face of the heavy artillery unleashed by the ruler's inner circle of guards.

For four months after winning last November's election, Ouattara pleaded with the international community to intervene and remove Gbagbo by force, arguing he wouldn't leave any other way.

The army, controlled by Gbagbo, has repeatedly used its arsenal of heavy artillery in an attempt to cow areas of the commercial capital that had voted for his opponent. Security forces are accused of opening fire with a mounted machine gun on a group of unarmed women and lobbing 81 mm mortars into a market.

Finally on Monday, United Nations attack helicopters acting on a Security Council resolution bombarded six arms depots in Abidjan – including a cache inside the presidential compound.

"Obviously they didn't get all of it," said a senior diplomat who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. "When they came after him, he pulled out more stuff. Remember, he had a long time to prepare for this."

Among the preparations was the choice of where Gbagbo would make his last stand. He is believed to be holed up in a tunnel originally built to connect the president's home and the adjacent residence of the French ambassador, Sindou said.

Ivory Coast's first president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, was reluctant to accept independence from France, a sign of the intimate relationship between this former African colony and its European master.

Even after independence, Houphouet-Boigny maintained a privileged relationship with France – and built the tunnel so he could take refuge inside the ambassador's residence in the event of a coup, said Ivory Coast expert Christian Bouquet, a professor of political geography at the University of Bordeaux III.

In an irony of history, shortly after coming to power in 2000, Gbagbo is said to have severed the umbilical cord between the residences, after accusing France of backing a rebel group that attempted to overthrow him in 2002. Fighters from this same group are now backing Ouattara and carried out Wednesday's attack on the residence.

Gbagbo has attempted to portray the effort to oust him as a neocolonial plot, led by France.

On Wednesday morning, Gbagbo's spokesman in Paris claimed it was French troops – not Ivorians – that had come to kill the ruler.

"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," said spokesman Toussaint Alain.

Gbagbo had appeared to be on the point of surrender on Tuesday, sending an emissary to meet with foreign ambassadors in order to negotiate the terms. The diplomat who has been following events closely said the overture appeared to be a foil and that Gbagbo was simply playing for time.

He continued to cling to power Wednesday, despite debilitating losses. The pro-Ouattara force began their lighting advance just over a week ago attacking from the east, west and center. At least 80 percent of the countryside was under their control by the time they entered Abidjan on Monday.

On Tuesday, Gbagbo's soldiers were seen abandoning their posts, some rushing inside a church to tear off their uniforms before re-emerging in civilian clothes. His generals issued orders to stop fighting.

Yet Gbagbo – a former history professor – appears to have calculated his rival's weakness: Ouattara, an intellectual who has spent decades abroad, knows that he needs to take Gbagbo alive to maintain international support, and avoid further alienating the 46 percent of the electorate who voted for Gbagbo in last year's election.

Taking him without harming him is not easy. It means the forces cannot barrel down on the bunker, but need to find ways to pierce through his security perimeter, without aiming fire directly at his position.

From inside his bunker, Gbagbo blasted the world in back-to-back interviews on French TV station LCI and French radio RFI. He said he would never step down, that there was nothing to negotiate and called the operation to oust him an international "game of poker."

Ouattara's spokeswoman Affoussy Bamba said that she was nonetheless optimistic that the end was near.

"He has nothing left. His arsenal is gone. His army has evaporated," she said by telephone from Abidjan. "How much longer can he last?"

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Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Michelle Faul in Accra, Ghana; and Jenny Barchfield and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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