ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Ivory Coast's strongman Laurent Gbagbo tried to hang on to power for one more day Wednesday from inside a bunker encircled on all sides by soldiers loyal to his rival. Diplomats said he had sent emissaries to negotiate, only to then refuse the proposals put before him.
Although Gbagbo is cornered and his army is rapidly disbanding, getting him out of the bunker is not an easy matter. Forces backing internationally recognized leader Alassane Ouattara have received strict instructions to take him unharmed, said several members of the president's cabinet.
After the evening newscast Tuesday, Ouattara's private TV station showed the movie "The Fall," which traces the last days of Adolf Hitler inside a bunker in Germany.
"This stubbornness is absurd. Gbagbo has no other solution anymore. Everybody has dropped him," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told France Info radio Wednesday. "He is holed up in the bunker in his residence so we will continue with the United Nations, which is handling that, to put pressure on him so he accepts to acknowledge the reality: There is only one legal and legitimate president today, it is Alassane Ouattara and I hope that persuasion will win and that we will avoid having to resume the military operations."
Down the hill from Gbagbo's luxurious compound, dozens of his soldiers were seen entering a church Tuesday where they stripped off their uniforms and abandoned their weapons. Gbagbo's three top generals also said they had ordered their men to stop fighting, the United Nations said in a statement.
The developments spell game over for a man who refused to accept defeat in last year's election and took his country to the precipice of civil war in his bid to preserve power. His security forces are accused of using cannons, mortars and machine guns to mow down opponents in the four months since Ouattara was declared the winner of the contested vote.
But analysts say Ouattara is acutely aware that while he won last year's election with 54 percent of the vote, Gbagbo received 46 percent — representing nearly half the electorate. A diplomat who speaks to Ouattara frequently said that the leader is aware of the danger involved at this stage, because if Gbagbo is killed it may galvanize his supporters.
Choi Young-jin, the top United Nations envoy in Ivory Coast said by telephone that Gbagbo's surrender was "imminent."
"He accepted (the) principle of accepting the results of the election, so he doesn't have many cards in his hands," Choi told Associated Press Television News. "The key element they are negotiating is where Mr. Gbagbo would go."
Then, just as he appeared to be on the brink of stepping down, Gbagbo, in his first interview in months, defiantly insisted he had no intention of surrendering power.
"I won the election and I'm not negotiating my departure," he told French TV station LCI by telephone from his bunker. "I find it absolutely incredible that the entire world is playing this ... game of poker."
Veteran observers of this nation on Africa's western edge say the turn of events could have been taken from a biography of Gbagbo.
In Abidjan, he has long been called Le Boulanger, French for The Baker, because he rolls people in flour, a reference to a popular expression meaning to manipulate and deceive others. The election that was finally held last year was supposed to take place five years earlier.
He was given so many extensions that people here have lost count of how many times the poll was rescheduled.
"I think he's playing for time," said a senior diplomat who has closely followed events and spoke on condition of anonymity because he had not been cleared to speak to the press. "His aim is always to buy himself just one more day."
France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Gbagbo would be required to relinquish power in writing and must formally recognize Ouattara, the internationally backed winner of the November election.
After amassing at the outskirts of the city on Monday, forces loyal to Ouattara seized the presidential residence where Gbagbo has been holed up overnight. They moved in after the United Nations agreed to act on a Security Council resolution giving their peacekeepers the right to take out Gbagbo's heavy artillery.
Mi-24 helicopters aided by French troops bombarded the outer perimeter of the compound. Those living nearby said the earth shook with each blast.
President Barack Obama said Tuesday the role of the U.N. was necessary to end the conflict. Ouattara's forces had taken over three-quarters of the countryside between Monday and Wednesday of last week, but then faltered when they reached Abidjan, where Gbagbo had created a protective radius, manned by his most faithful soldiers.
"To end this violence and prevent more bloodshed, former President Gbagbo must stand down immediately and direct those who are fighting on his behalf to lay down their arms," Obama said in a statement.
Ivory Coast gained independence from France in 1960, and some 20,000 French citizens still lived there when a brief civil war broke out in 2002.
French troops were then tasked by the U.N. with monitoring a cease-fire and protecting foreign nationals in Ivory Coast, which was once an economic star and is still one of the only countries in the region with four-lane highways, skyscrapers, escalators and wine bars.
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.