ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — An armed group trying to install Ivory Coast's internationally recognized president has surrounded a bunker the country's strongman refuses to leave, saying they will wait for him to come out.
Entrenched incumbent Laurent Gbagbo remained defiant on Thursday, even after airstrikes hammered his military bases and his residence, where he is holed up with his wife inside a subterranean tunnel. Via a spokesman in Europe, the ruler continued to insist he'd won last November's election and stressed he would never leave the country he has ruled for the past 10 years.
"I reached the head of state and his wife less than an hour ago and no – he will not surrender. President Gbagbo will not cede," said his adviser Toussaint Alain by telephone from Paris. "It's a question of principle. President Gbagbo is not a monarch. He is not a king. He is not an emperor. He is a president elected by his people."
Gbagbo has refused to accept defeat even though he was declared the loser of the November election both by his country's electoral body and by international observers including the United Nations. After four months of diplomacy, his opponent Alassane Ouattara, who is internationally recognized as having won the poll, gave the go-ahead for a military intervention led by fighters from a former rebel group.
An armed group backing Ouattara stormed the gates of Gbagbo's home on Wednesday. The group has stopped short of killing the entrenched leader, a move that could stoke the rage of his supporters. Some 46 percent of Ivorians voted for Gbagbo in the November election that unleashed political chaos.
"This will be over very soon," Ouattara's envoy to the U.N. Youssoufou Bamba said in New York.
He said when Gbagbo is taken "he will be alive and well. He wants to be a martyr. We won't allow (his death) to happen."
Bamba also vehemently denied that his government was employing mercenaries from other countries for the fight.
Also in New York, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos said she was "extremely concerned" about the situation in Abidjan, which has led hundreds of thousands of residents to flee their homes in the commercial capital.
"People who have remained are trapped in their homes by the fighting that has raged on around them for over a week," she said in a statement. "Aid workers have largely been unable to move as well. ... The important thing to remember here is it is ordinary people who are caught up in this violence."
Amos also visited a town in western Ivory Coast where aid groups have documented hundreds of killings.
"In Duekoue, I saw evidence of what must have been terrible violence," she said. "Burned and destroyed buildings, looting, and destruction."
She did not say who may have been responsible for the violence, though the U.N. last week accused traditional hunters fighting in a force supporting Ouattara for the deaths of more than 330 people the week before in Duekoue.
Amos said the U.N. had launched an investigation and the officials had heard reports of similar incidents elsewhere.
"There must be no impunity for the perpetrators of these terrible crimes," Amos said. "While we don't yet know the full extent of the atrocities that have been carried out, they clearly add up to extremely serious human rights violations."
Amid the fighting in Abidjan late Wednesday, French troops rescued the Japanese ambassador and seven others after fighters attacked them. In a video provided by the French military, the forces are seen rappelling from a helicopter with night-vision goggles.
Heavy arms fire was heard across Abidjan overnight, but on Thursday hundreds of people ventured out despite the dangers in search of water as U.N. helicopters circled in the air.
Ouattara has pleaded with the international community for months to intervene and remove Gbagbo by force, arguing he wouldn't leave any other way.
Despite losing the election, Gbagbo still controls the Ivorian army and has repeatedly used its arsenal of heavy artillery to attack areas of Abidjan where people voted for his opponent. Security forces are accused of opening fire with a mounted machine gun on a group of unarmed women and lobbing mortars into a market.
But French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said he estimated that Gbagbo only had some 1,000 troops, compared to the 2,000-strong force that has been fighting to install Ouattara.
Finally on Monday, United Nations attack helicopters acting on a U.N. 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.
The pro-Ouattara forces began their lightning advance just over a week ago attacking from the east, west and center of the country. At least 80 percent of the countryside was under their control by the time they entered Abidjan.
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 knows that he needs to take Gbagbo alive to maintain international support, and to avoid further alienating Gbagbo's supporters.
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?"
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer and Anita Snow at the United Nations; Michelle Faul in Accra, Ghana; and Cecile Brisson in Paris contributed to this report.