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 U.N. 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 November's election. The chief of staff of Gbagbo's military, Philippe Mangou, told news agencies that his forces had stopped fighting.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told his nation's Parliament that Gbagbo was on the brink of stepping down.
However, Reuters news service later reported that Gbagbo had called a French television station to acknowledge the call for a truce but deny he was ready to surrender.
"The army has called for the suspension of hostilities … and it is currently discussing the conditions of a cease-fire with the other forces on the ground, but on a political level no decision has yet been taken," Gbagbo told LCI television.
In the Ivorian commercial capital of Abidjan, witnesses in the 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. Mangou said 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 U.N confirmed in a statement that it was offering protection to the Gbagbo forces, saying peacekeepers had orders "to accept weapons everywhere and to offer protection to the disarmed defense and security forces, including the special forces."
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, militias rampaged in the city, looting shops and houses.
Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting, according to the International Committee of 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-elect and called for Gbagbo to leave power.
But despite mounting pressure and U.N. Security Council sanctions, Gbagbo held on as his militias raged through 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 1960 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 Konan 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 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 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.