Abidjan: Forces allied with Ivory Coast`s internationally-recognised President said they planned to regroup on Thursday and again attack the compound where strongman Laurent Gbagbo remains holed up in an underground bunker refusing to surrender.
Airstrikes already have pounded holes in his garden and destroyed his weapons depots, and fighters have encircled his home and stormed the gates.
But forces allied with internationally-recognised President Alassane Ouattara are fearful of killing Gbagbo and stoking the rage of his supporters. Some 46 percent of Ivorians voted for him in the November election that unleashed political chaos.
The 65-year-old strongman, who has made an art of staying in power years past the end of his legal mandate, is now pushing the envelope, fighting for each day, even each hour.
"He will not surrender," said Meite Sindou, a defence spokesman for Ouattara, the man recognised worldwide as the democratically elected president of Ivory Coast. "We will have to take him."
Wednesday began with the boldest attempt yet to penetrate Gbagbo`s inner sanctum as fighters loyal to Ouattara made it as far as the gate of the presidential mansion he has occupied for the last decade. They attacked it with a barrage of fire, and residents reported hearing concussive blasts.
They breached the property`s perimeter only to be forced to retreat in the face of the heavy artillery unleashed by the ruler`s inner circle of guards.
Ouattara has pleaded with the international community for months to intervene and remove Gbagbo by force, arguing he wouldn`t leave any other way.
Despite losing the election, Gbagbo still controls the Ivorian Army and has repeatedly used its arsenal of heavy artillery to attack areas of Abidjan where people voted for his opponent. Security forces are accused of opening fire with a mounted machine gun on a group of unarmed women and lobbing mortars into a market.
Finally on Monday, United Nations attack helicopters acting on a UN Security Council resolution bombarded six arms depots in Abidjan — including a cache inside the presidential compound.
"Obviously they didn`t get all of it," said a senior diplomat who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. "When they came after him, he pulled out more stuff. Remember, he had a long time to prepare for this."
Among the preparations was the choice of where Gbagbo would make his last stand. He is believed to be holed up in a tunnel originally built to connect the President`s home and the adjacent residence of the French ambassador, Sindou said.
Ivory Coast`s first president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, built the tunnel so he could take refuge inside the ambassador`s residence in the event of a coup, said Ivory Coast expert Christian Bouquet, a professor of political geography at the University of Bordeaux III.
In an irony of history, Gbagbo is said to have severed the link between the residences shortly after coming to power in 2000. He had accused France of backing a rebel group that attempted to overthrow him in 2002, and fighters from this same group are now backing Ouattara and carried out Wednesday`s attack on the residence.
The pro-Ouattara forces began their lighting advance just over a week ago attacking from the east, west and centre of the country. At least 80 percent of the countryside was under their control by the time they entered Abidjan.
On Tuesday, Gbagbo`s soldiers were seen abandoning their posts, some rushing inside a church to tear off their uniforms before re-emerging in civilian clothes. His generals issued orders to stop fighting.
Yet Gbagbo — a former history professor — appears to have calculated his rival`s weakness: Ouattara knows that he needs to take Gbagbo alive to maintain international support, and to avoid further alienating voters who supported Gbagbo in last year`s election.
From inside his bunker, Gbagbo blasted the world in back-to-back interviews on French TV station LCI and French radio RFI. He said he would never step down, that there was nothing to negotiate and called the operation to oust him an international "game of poker”.
Ouattara`s spokeswoman Affoussy Bamba said that she was nonetheless optimistic that the end was near.
"He has nothing left. His arsenal is gone. His army has evaporated," she said by telephone from Abidjan. "How much longer can he last?"