Abidjan: Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo, cornered by rival forces, hunkered down at his home Wednesday trying to negotiate an exit deal as France denied he had already surrendered.
As negotiations continued to end a four-month post-election stand-off that has plunged the country into war, Gbagbo rejected the former colonial power`s demand that he recognise his rival Alassane Ouattara as president.
"I do not recognise the victory of Ouattara.... Why would you want me to sign this?" Gbagbo said in an interview with France`s LCI news channel, referring to a document in which France and the United Nations urge him to quit.
Negotiations are being held but Gbagbo has not surrendered, the French president`s office said.
Fighting practically stopped overnight Tuesday although the population of five million remained shut up at home, with only sporadic fire from armed roaming youths.
"Fighting has stopped but there is sporadic shooting by groups of youths who are not members of the FDS (Pro-Gbagbo army) or the Republican forces (of Alassane Ouattara)," UN mission spokesman Hamadoun Toure told reporters.
As reports of atrocities emerged from fighting in a western Ivory Coast town last week, the UN said it believed "several hundred" people were killed in massacres and one mass grave had almost 200 bodies.
The mass killings were in the town of Duekoue, seized by Ouattara`s army last week in a lightning offensive across the country.
"It appears that several hundred civilians were killed in at least two separate incidents and many others may have been killed in direct fighting between armed militias," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
In Abidjan, citizens anxiously awaited news of a possible end to the Gbagbo era, as pro-Ouattara television station TCI played extracts from "Downfall", a film about the final days of Hitler.
United Nations mission UNOCI said Gbagbo`s closest advisers had deserted him.
"With a handful of persons, he is known to have retreated to the basement bunker of the presidential residence," a UNOCI statement said.
From his hideout, Gbagbo, who refuses to step down in favour of Ouattara following November 2010 elections, was reportedly negotiating his departure, but had not yet surrendered.
"We are today I hope on the brink of convincing Mr Gbagbo to leave power and let Alassane Ouattara exercise" power, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
US President Barack Obama urged the embattled incumbent to step down immediately and voiced strong support for French and UN military efforts.
"To end this violence and prevent more bloodshed, former president Gbagbo must stand down immediately, and direct those who are fighting on his behalf to lay down their arms," Obama said in a statement.
The United Nations said dozens of people were reportedly killed over the past few days in Abidjan and that the humanitarian situation in the city was "dramatic".
Ouattara`s fighters were aided by French and UN helicopters who attacked Gbagbo`s residence, barracks and the presidential palace to take out heavy weapons on Monday.
UN Security Council resolution 1975 adopted on March 30 ordered sanctions against Gbagbo to push him to leave and also said the UN force should protect civilians and prevent use of heavy weapons.
Gbagbo`s army chief General Philippe Mangou told AFP he had called for a ceasefire.
"Following the bombardment by the French forces on some of our positions and certain strategic points in the city of Abidjan, we have ourselves stopped fighting and have asked the general commanding ONUCI (the UN force) for a ceasefire," Mangou said.
This would allow for the "protection of the population, soldiers, the Republican Guard ensuring the president`s security, the president himself and his family, and members of government", he added.
The UN mission said its troops had been ordered to offer protection to members of Gbagbo`s army who have laid down their arms.