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Ivory Coast leader trapped in Abidjan as fighting continues

Die-hard loyalists are defending Laurent Gbagbo at the presidential residence. The city's residents are trapped without food or electricity.

April 08, 2011|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — Embattled Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo on Thursday remained trapped in his presidential residence in Abidjan under the protection of 200 heavily armed loyalists, while many other residents of the country's commercial capital struggled to find food.

Fighting between Gbagbo supporters and opposition forces continued in some neighborhoods and pro-Gbagbo militias still dominated parts of the city.

Residents who have been trapped inside for a week by the battle — many without food, cooking gas or electricity — were unable to get help Thursday, said a resident in the vicinity of Gbagbo's house, reached by phone.

The country was plunged into crisis after Gbagbo refused to concede defeat in November's presidential election. The results, certified by the United Nations, gave rival Alassane Ouattara 54% of the vote and Gbagbo 46%. But they were strongly disputed by Gbagbo, who insisted that fraud had occurred in Ouattara's stronghold in the north of the country.

Four months of diplomatic maneuvering, U.N. sanctions on the Gbagbo government, threats of military intervention and international calls on Gbagbo to quit achieved nothing.

Ouattara ended the stalemate a week ago and launched an attack designed to sweep Gbagbo from power.

But his fighters have been stymied by the delicate task of extracting Gbagbo from his heavily fortified residence. Opposition forces fear his death in combat would enrage his volatile supporters.

The upscale Cocody neighborhood near Gbagbo's home, where many embassies are located, was swarming with youthful pro-Gbagbo militants Thursday.

Even French officials, who had announced prematurely that Gbagbo was on the brink of surrendering, were more cautious Thursday. Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Gbagbo's departure was inevitable, but he would not say when it might happen.

Juppe said Gbagbo's intransigence had scuttled talks on an orderly departure and transfer of power.

Gbagbo is holed up with his wife, Simone, a hard-line member of the ruling party, who is also subject to U.N. sanctions, and other close associates.

France, Ivory Coast's former colonial power, has had peacekeeping forces in the West African country since the 2002 civil war. November's election, repeatedly delayed, came more than five years after Gbagbo's mandate as president expired. It was supported by the U.N. and international community and was designed to reunite the country and allow Ivory Coast to move forward.

On Monday, U.N. helicopters with French assistance destroyed many arms depots, including heavy weaponry at Gbagbo's residence.

If Gbagbo was holding out for an amnesty deal, he could be disappointed. Emeric Rogier, a member of the International Criminal Court's office of the prosecutor, told the AFP news agency Thursday that the court would not be bound by any such promise.

The court plans to investigate possible crimes against humanity in Ivory Coast, including a massacre of hundreds in the western town of Duekoue that occurred after forces opposed to Gbagbo swept through the area.

French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet told AFP that Gbagbo was down to 1,000 die-hard loyalists, with about 200 deployed at the presidential residence.

Most of his senior military officers and rank-and-file soldiers have deserted him or surrendered in the last week.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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