Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo calls for cease-fire, negotiates surrender

Un-rest on the Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo is in a bunker under his home Tuesday and is working out the terms of his surrender following his election defeat to Alassane Ouattara last fall.
Laurent Gbagbo

Laurent Gbagbo, who has clung to power in Ivory Coast despite his defeat last fall in U.N.-certified elections, called for a cease-fire Tuesday after weeks of intense fighting and was negotiating the terms of his surrender, French and United Nations officials said.

A United Nations statement confirmed that Gbagbo had retreated to a bunker under his residence and had called for a cease-fire between his troops and forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, who was widely viewed as the winner of last November's election. The chief of staff of Gbagbo's military, Philippe Mangou, told news agencies his forces had stopped fighting.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told his nation's Parliament that Gbagbo was on the brink of stepping down.

Witnesses in Abidjan's upscale Cocody neighborhood, close to Gbagbo's residence and the presidential palace, said fighting stopped about 9:30 a.m. and Gbagbo's soldiers were seen leaving their positions. According to Mangou, Gbagbo was demanding the safety of himself and his family, as well as his forces.

Pro-Ouattara television in Ivory Coast reported that U.N. forces had been asked by Gbagbo's representatives to protect army bases from attacks by his rival's forces — a reversal for his troops, who had clashed with U.N. forces protecting Ouattara and his entourage.

The developments came after helicopter strikes Monday by U.N. and French peacekeeping forces destroyed a major military base, an arms depot and the state television station and took out heavy weaponry around the presidential palace, neutering Gbagbo's military. The world body said the strikes were necessary to stop Gbagbo's forces from firing at civilians and attacking U.N. peacekeepers.

After days of fierce fighting, many of Abidjan's remaining 4 million residents were stranded in their homes without access to food or water, unable to go outdoors because of shooting and heavy weapons fire. During any lulls in the shooting, violent militias rampaged in the city, looting shops and houses.

Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting, according to the International Committee for the Red Cross, and the U.N. has reported that about 1 million people have fled their homes.

The crisis was sparked after Gbagbo refused to stand down last fall. The U.N., the African Union and other international organizations and leaders recognized Ouattara as president and called for Gbagbo to leave power.

But despite mounting pressure and U.N. Security Council sanctions, Gbagbo held on as his militias rampaged in neighborhoods of Abidjan, killing opposition supporters and foreign migrants.

Gbagbo, 65, a Sorbonne-educated history professor, was for many years the main opposition figure challenging Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the pro-French founding president of Ivory Coast, who reigned from independence in 1959 until his death in 1993.

Gbagbo came to power as the only opposition candidate who wasn't barred from running in 2000 elections that followed a 1999 coup against then President Henri Bedie by Robert Guei, a military officer. Gbagbo claimed victory in the race and flooded the streets with his supporters, toppling Guei and vowing to bring an end to the cult of personality where "big men" clung to power and refused to tolerate dissent or accept defeat.

In 2002, a civil war split the country into north and south. As the standoff dragged on, Gbagbo repeatedly put off the elections that were due in 2005.

Ouattara, a U.S.-educated economist who worked for the International Monetary Fund, was appointed prime minister by Houphouet-Boigny in 1990, but was outmaneuvered in the fight for succession after Houphouet-Boigny's 1993 death.

Before last's year's presidential election, which was supposed to unite the country, Gbagbo's slogan, "We win or we win," belied his stated willingness to give up power. Some analysts say the overconfident Gbagbo was stunned by a defeat he failed to predict.

As in other African countries, such as Kenya, where elections have triggered riots and killings, the xenophobic undertone to Ivorian politics exploded in post-election violence.

Ivory Coast, once the most prosperous country in West Africa, was a throbbing economic engine that drew migrants from poorer neighboring countries. Local politicians exploited popular resentment of migrant workers during the 1999 coup, coining the term "Ivoirete" – the idea that a "true" Ivorian with full citizenship rights was born of two Ivorian parents.

Gbagbo didn't coin the term, but for years his regime exploited such sentiment. Youth Minister Charles Ble Goude, who headed a volatile pro-Gbagbo youth militia called the Young Patriots, was accused by Human Rights Watch in a report last month of fanning xenophobic attacks in February, when he called on true Ivorians to set up roadblocks in their neighborhoods and "denounce" foreigners. This led to a spike in attacks on immigrant civilians and northerners – some who were burned, shot or struck with bricks.

Ble Goude also whipped up hatred against French residents in 2004, sparking riots that saw thousands of French small businessmen flee the country.

According to rights groups, the majority of atrocities during the current post-election crisis were committed by pro-Gbagbo forces. But pro-Ouattara forces in some areas of Abidjan carried out reprisal killings.

The U.N. has implicated pro-Ouattara fighters in the killings of hundreds of people — and by some estimates, up to 1,000 — last week in the western village of Duekoue, after the fighters swept through the area as part of their rapid nationwide offensive to force Gbagbo from power.

Ouattara says his forces killed no civilians, and his spokesmen have blamed local militias in an area where traditional tensions over land combined with the recent post-election crisis. Ouattara has promised an investigation.

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