Heavy arms fire rang out Wednesday near the home of the country's strongman who remained holed up in a subterranean bunker, as forces backing his rival assaulted the residence to try to force him out, diplomats and witnesses said.
Forces protecting Laurent Gbagbo appeared to rally Wednesday night, pushing back the armed group fighting to install democratically elected president Alassane Ouattara.
A spokesman for Ouattara's fighters, Yves Doumbia, said their forces breached the gates of the ruler's compound, only to be repelled by heavy arms fire.
"We retreated but we are preparing for a second assault," Doumbia said by telephone.
Gbagbo has suffered debilitating losses in the past two days. United Nations Mi-24 helicopters attacked and destroyed his arms depots on Monday. On Tuesday, his soldiers were seen abandoning their posts across the city, some rushing inside a church to tear off their uniforms and dump their weapons before discreetly exiting in civilian clothes.
Yet the 65-year-old Gbagbo — a former history professor — appears to have calculated his rival's weakness: Ouattara, an intellectual who has spent decades abroad, knows that he needs to take Gbagbo alive in order to maintain international support, and avoid further alienating the 46 percent of the electorate that voted for Gbagbo in last year's presidential election.
A spokeswoman for Ouattara said earlier on France-24 television that the forces would eventually succeed in forcing out the leader who has refused to cede power after losing a November election.
"At the current moment they have not yet captured Gbagbo but it will happen soon," Affoussy Bamba said by telephone from Abidjan.
"They opened the gates and noted that the residence is surrounded by heavy weaponry," she said. "Now the objective is to capture him."
Gbagbo had appeared to be on the point of surrender on Tuesday, sending an emissary to meet with foreign ambassadors in order to negotiate the terms of his resignation. But a senior diplomat who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press said the overture appeared to be a foil, and that Gbagbo was simply playing for time.