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French firepower proves too heavy for strongman Gbagbo

After a lost election, four months of international pressure, air strikes by the United Nations and a resumption of civil war, Laurent Gbagbo was last night negotiating his departure from power in Ivory Coast.

While the strongman hid in his bunker, outside on the streets of Abidjan, bodies lay uncollected, gangs of armed men roamed the lagoon and doctors said it was still too dangerous to answer the constant appeals for help.

The crisis has sent 130,000 refugees across the border into Liberia, displaced as many as one million people and set a toll which is expected to rise sharply from the 1,300 deaths so far acknowledged.

The denouement which began late on Monday cast former colonial power France in a leading role. It was France's 1,600-strong “unicorn force” that joined UN helicopter attacks to remove the Gbagbo forces' heavy weapons and clear the way for ground troops loyal to internationally recognised president, Alassane Ouattara, to win their offensive.

Lawyers representing Mr Gbagbo were believed to be arguing the terms of a potentially controversial retirement package for the 65-year-old and his wife Simone Gbagbo. “If everything goes well, we will have a declaration soon,” a Gbagbo aide, Ahoua Don Mello, said.

France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe last night told parliament in Paris that “we are on the brink of convincing him to leave power”. But the government of Nicolas Sarkozy — continued to insist it had used its military power only at the behest of the UN.

The night's onslaught, which saw UN peacekeepers stretch their mandate to destroy heavy weapons they claimed were being used to target civilians, had slowed to sporadic fighting by yesterday. The toll from the fighting remains unclear with hospitals cut off, running low on drugs and without adequate food and water.

“From the information we have there have been a lot of civilian casualties,” said Xavier Simon, from Medecins Sans Frontieres. “There are bodies in the streets and the wounded are sheltering at home.”

Doctors said stray bullets and shelling had hit residential areas but it was unsafe for ambulances to collect the injured. “We have been getting a lot of calls from people who have been wounded but we can't help them,” said Mr Simon. “We're ready to go but we need to get access to the population.”

background

Ivory Coast, the world's leading cocoa producer, has been in crisis since elections last November saw opposition leader Alassane Ouattara beat Laurent Gbagbo. The incumbent overruled his own election commission and got his own hand-picked judges to declare him the winner. A tense stand-off followed as the African Union tried to mediate a peaceful end to the crisis but that ended 10 days ago when troops from the northern Force Nouvelles (FN) swept south in a lightning offensive. After years of distancing himself and his RDR party from the FN soldiers, Mr Ouattara acknowledged them as his forces and claimed their attacks were necessary.

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