Ouattara forces say attack Gbagbo Abidjan residence

ABIDJAN Thu Mar 31, 2011 11:01pm EDT

1 of 9. Soldiers loyal to Laurent Gbagbo patrol a street in Abidjan March 31, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Luc Gnago

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ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Fighters loyal to presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara attacked the residence of incumbent Laurent Gbagbo in Abidjan early on Friday and seized control of Ivory Coast's state television, a Ouattara spokesman said.

A military source in Gbagbo's camp confirmed the attack on Gbagbo's residence but said that pro-Gbagbo forces were still putting up resistance at state broadcaster, RTI. Residents in the area confirmed heavy fighting.

Loyalists of the internationally recognized president entered the city on Thursday after a swift offensive south aimed at ousting Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power since a November 28 election that U.N.-certified results showed he lost.

Fighting between the rival factions raged for hours on Thursday and heavy weapons fire rang out in the center of the commercial capital of the world's top cocoa producer.

"His house is under attack. That's for sure. There is a resistance, but it's under attack," Ouattara spokesman Patrick Achi told Reuters.

"(Gbagbo) hasn't shown any signs of giving up. I don't think he will see the game is up, because he really believes God will save him ... Gbagbo is in his house. I'm certain. He hasn't gone anywhere," he added.

A military source in Gbagbo's camp confirmed the attack, adding that Gbagbo's bodyguards were fighting back.

Residents across the city said the state broadcaster stopped transmitting at 2245 GMT on Thursday after repeatedly showing images of Gbagbo and his close entourage. Gbagbo has been due to speak on state media for days.

"(State broadcaster) RTI is taken, it's off air. It is under control," Achi said, adding a statement would be made later.

The military source, who asked not to be named, confirmed that the gendarmerie had abandoned their positions but said pro-Gbagbo Republican Guard and armed students were still fighting to defend the state broadcaster early on Friday.

The state television building is close to Gbagbo's residence in the leafy neighborhood of Cocody.

STANDOFF KILLED HUNDREDS

In power since 2000, Gbagbo's mandate ran out in 2005 but the presidential election was delayed until 2010 because of instability in the country.

A Sorbonne-educated history professor who prides himself on being in touch with ordinary Ivorians, he rose to prominence as firebrand lecturer who challenged the autocratic rule of Ivory Coast's first post-independence president.

The four month standoff has killed hundreds and rekindled the country's 2002-3 civil war. About 1 million have fled Abidjan alone and some 112,000 other have crossed into Liberia, to the west, according to the United Nations.

Earlier this week, Ouattara's forces advanced from several directions, taking the capital Yamoussoukro and the cocoa port of San Pedro with little resistance.

But Gbagbo's elite forces took positions around the presidential palace in Abidjan on Thursday, in a business district a few km from the residence, and Ouattara's forces could get sucked into bloody urban warfare with his hard-core supporters, some of whom are recently armed civilians.

French soldiers were also deployed to protect foreign residents. A U.N. helicopter gunship flew during the afternoon.

The power struggle had pushed cocoa prices higher, but they have tumbled since Ouattara, a former prime minister who later joined the IMF and rose to be its deputy head, began his push.

The capture of San Pedro, which ships half of the country's production, could kick-start the flow of beans that dried up in January due to sanctions, but diplomats said any easing of EU measures would take days.

Ouattara's camp has rejected appeals by Gbagbo's camp for a ceasefire or further dialogue, saying on Thursday that the incumbent had just hours left in power.

South Africa's government said Gbagbo's army chief of staff, General Phillippe Mangou, had sought refuge at its ambassador's residence in Abidjan, in one of the biggest blows yet to Gbagbo's grip on power.

U.N. troops were in control of Abidjan airport after Gbagbo forces abandoned it, a security source and U.N. sources said.

An internal U.N. report, seen by Reuters, also said pro-Gbagbo forces had abandoned a blockade of a hotel Ouattara had been restricted to. It also said peacekeepers had exchanged fire with Gbagbo loyalists in several parts of the city.

The U.S. government said Gbagbo had been "significantly" weakened by defections and the disintegration of his forces and Ouattara called on the remaining Gbago loyalists to give up.

He also announced a three-day overnight curfew and ordered the closure of land, air and sea borders, an Interior Ministry statement said. There were widespread reports of looting.

"Militarily, I think it is over. But I don't think the situation is totally under control as there is likely to be lots of pillaging," a security source said, asking not to be named.

Gbagbo has resisted pressure from the African Union and the West to step down since the November poll, and has been the target of sanctions by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

The United Nations reiterated calls for Gbagbo to step down and Washington called on all sides to exercise restraint.

At least 494 people have been confirmed killed since the standoff began, according to the United Nations, but, given the scale of fighting, the real figure is likely to be much higher.

(Additional reporting by Ange Aboa in Abidjan; Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis; Editing by Alison Williams)

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