The former history professor turned politician, who refused to accept that he had lost last year’s election, is facing an ignominious end to his 10-year rule after waging a desperate war to preserve it.
As he sheltered in the basement of his presidential palace surrounded by forces loyal to his rival, Alassane Ouattara, the UN said that it had received calls from Gbagbo’s three top generals – the head of the armed forces, the head of the police and the head of the elite republican guard – offering to negotiate terms for surrender in return for guarantees of safety.
The negotiations came after a dramatic 24 hours in Ivory Coast. On Monday night, UN and French forces opened fire with attack helicopters on Gbagbo’s arms stockpiles and bases. Earlier, columns of foot soldiers allied to Ouattara finally pierced the city limits of Abidjan.
Gbagbo’s spokesman, Ahoua Don Mello, told Reuters there were “direct negotiations based on African Union (AU) recommendations which said Alassane Ouattara is president. They are also negotiating judicial and security conditions for Gbagbo’s camp and his relatives.”
Last night, Gbagbo told French television his commanders were negotiating for a ceasefire. He also criticised France for intervening in Ivory Coast. “I don’t understand how an electoral dispute in Ivory Coast has brought about the direct intervention of the French army,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ouattara has urged forces loyal to him to take Gbagbo alive, and his advisers have called for Gbagbo to stand trial at the international criminal court.
Although the four-month stalemate between the rival presidents seemed to be all but over, there have been continued reports of sporadic fighting and fears of revenge attacks and looting. Ouattara will face a massive challenge to unite the country and rebuild its shattered economy.
“One might think that we are getting to the end of the crisis,” Hamadoun Touré, spokesman for the UN mission in Ivory Coast, told the Associated Press. “We spoke to his close aides. Some had already defected, some are ready to stop fighting. He is alone now, he is in his bunker with a handful of supporters and family members. So is he going to last or not? I don’t know.”
France, the former colonial power, said both it and the UN required Gbagbo to state in writing that he was giving up power before any agreement is reached. Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, told parliament he agreed with the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, that “the departure of Gbagbo be preceded by the publication of a document with his signature in which he renounces power”.
The UN and French offensive on Monday night, an unprecedented escalation in the international community’s efforts to oust Gbagbo, was carried out in the name of civilian protection but also proved useful to the rebels backing Ouattara.
President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke twice on Tuesday to Ouattara, whose victory in last November’s election has been endorsed by the UN, US, the AU and EU.
Barack Obama said he welcomed the role of UN and French forces in Ivory Coast. “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,” the US president said.
“Every day the fighting persists will bring more suffering, and further delay the future of peace and prosperity that the people of Côte d’Ivoire deserve.”
But the president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the current head of the AU, condemned foreign military intervention in Ivory Coast and Libya, saying Africa must be allowed to manage its own affairs.
France said its military would intervene only if requested to by the UN. Gbagbo’s camp already blames Paris for supporting his opponents in the 2002-03 civil war.
Even before the latest offensive, post-election violence had left at least 1,500 people dead – most of them Ouattara supporters – and forced up to 1 million to flee their homes. Many civilians in Abidjan, a city of about 4 million people, remain trapped in their homes and in urgent need of food and water.
The prosecutor of the international criminal court, José Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said he was analysing information on last week’s massacre in the western town of Duékoué, where at least 800 people were reportedly killed, and wanted to open a formal investigation.
Moreno-Ocampo said on Tuesday it was not yet clear who was responsible for the massacre.
The Elders, a group of eminent global leaders, called on Ouattara to unite the nation through reconciliation. Its chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said: “I urge President Ouattara to commit publicly to a process of accountability. His actions and words in the coming days are critical to the future of Côte d’Ivoire. The people need reconciliation, not retaliation.”