Ivory Coast Strongman Gbagbo Stays Put

The longtime leader of Ivory Coast isn't going anywhere, at least not yet. Laurent Gbagbo lost an election, then lost a fight: Rebels took control of most of his country and much of the main city, Abidjan. Still, Gbabgo refuses to step down, retreating to a bunker and denouncing the former colonial power, France, for turning against him.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Opponents of the longtime president of Ivory Coast are attacking his residence today. Laurent Gbagbo is refusing to leave even though he lost the presidential election. His residence is now the last thing under his control. The rest of the country is in the hands of rebels. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is following this story from across the border in Ghana. She's on the line.

Ofeibea, what's happening now?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Well, it depends who you listen to. If it's Laurent Gbagbo supporters they say that the French are firing on the bunker where he retreated to. If you listen to Alassane Ouattara, the other presidential claimant's camp, they say that their forces are trying to storm the bunker to get Gbagbo out, because he has defied Ivorians. He has defied the world. And he is refusing to step down.

But what we do know is that fighting and firing has restarted in the main city Abidjan.

INSKEEP: And we should mention I guess there is some political significance to whether Gbagbo is being attacked by outsiders, as he would term them, or by his own people. But in either case these rebels have teamed up with the French and the United Nations. How is their cooperation or their collaboration best described?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, there is a U.N. peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast. There is a French Licorne force under the U.N. mandate. And then there are the pro-Alassane Ouattara forces, now called the Republican forces. And on Monday, France and the U.N. launched airstrikes against Laurent Gbagbo saying that his heavy weapons were causing too much damage and death of civilians. They had called on him to stop and that hadn't happened.

But let me just roll forward to yesterday. It seemed that there were talks, negotiations the French and the U.N. said for Laurent Gbagbo's exit. He appeared on a French television station last evening and said he is going nowhere. That he remains the legitimate president. That he won the elections. That he is prepared to talk at the table with Alassane Ouattara, but Ouattara lost the elections and he's not handing power to him.

So at one moment we thought that the end of the fighting and the conflict may be in sight, which is of course what the civilians would like. And suddenly there was an about turn and the Gbagbo camp said they were negotiating a cease-fire and not his exit or surrender.

INSKEEP: Well, knowing as he does that the international community seems to agree that these elections - that he lost these elections, what other reasons has Gbagbo given for hanging on?

QUIST-ARCTON: Because he says he won. But he is a serial staller, Steve. This is a man who is the champion of buying time. And when the west African regional bloc, ECOWAS, in December after the disputed elections at the end of November, said that they would use legitimate force to remove him if he didn't stand down and then blinked - that was all Gbagbo needed.

He has managed to drag this out for four months. He says the former colonial power France has concocted what he calls an international conspiracy dragging in the White House, the African Union, the West African regional bloc of everybody else to drive him out of office. This is an old, old quarrel between France and Ivory Coast and Gbagbo.

But, you know, civilians are not buying it. They say there's too much violence. The elections were meant to end Ivory Coast division. But the elections have in fact got them deeper into problems after hundreds of deaths of civilians.

INSKEEP: Well, what has happened to civilians as President Gbagbo, or former President Gbagbo, perhaps we should say, is buying time for himself and the fighting goes on?

QUIST-ARCTON: In the west of the country there have been reported massacres of between 800 and 1,000 civilians. Come back to the main city Abidjan and the battle has been on for Abidjan the past week or so. Civilians have been barricaded into their homes, Steve, trapped in their homes - no food, no water, no security, no electricity.

And they are frightened, terrified, because there are armed men, pro-Gbagbo militia, pro-Ouattara militia also, roaming around, either pillaging, looting, attacking civilians. So they want an end to this.

They thought that had come yesterday, but it looks as if with the fighting or at least firing having restarted on the presidential residence today that this was going to be ended militarily perhaps and without a peaceful solution, which is what most Ivorians wants.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

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