ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Heavy gunfire was heard across Abidjan as guards loyal of Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo repelled a sustained assault on the bunker where he has been holed up for days.
Carrying automatic weapons and approaching the compound in pickup trucks modified to carry heavy machine guns, troops fighting for Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the November election, attempted to storm the official residence where Gbagbo is sheltered in the fortified basement.
As Gbagbo's generals have ordered troops to surrender and the residence is protected by a small band of guards, many expected Gbagbo would be flushed out of his hideout.
But Ouattara's troops faced stiff resistance from inside the property's walls, where Gbagbo's supporters are dug in with mortars and rocket launchers.
Ouattara's troops made it as far as the gate of the presidential mansion Gbagbo 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.
After several hours of fighting the sounds of battle died away.
A defiant Gbagbo denied he was hiding in the bunker, speaking by phone to French radio.
"I am in the residence — the residence of the president of the republic. When it rains, can't one take shelter inside one's house?" said Gbagbo.
He had earlier denied he was surrendering, saying he was only negotiating a truce.
Diplomatic negotiations to get Gbagbo to surrender were abandoned because the leader stubbornly rejected all offers, according to French Prime Minister Alain Juppe.
Gbagbo and his family have been in the bunker below his official residence in the Cocody neighborhood of Abidjan. Opposition forces had been in the residence since Monday and had closed in around the entrance to the basement which was protected by a few armed guards loyal to Gbagbo.
Two days of heavy fighting stopped late on Tuesday and negotiations with Mr Gbagbo carried on throughout the night.
But by Wednesday morning it appeared the patience of pro-Ouattara forces had run out.
"We are going to get Laurent Gbagbo out of his hole and hand him over to the president of the Republic," said Sidiki Konate, spokesman of Mr Ouattara's prime minister, Guillaume Soro.
The boom of heavy artillery confirmed that Gbagbo's residence was being stormed.
"Yes they [Ouattara forces] are in the process of entering the residence to seize Gbagbo," Affousy Bamba, a spokeswoman for forces backing Ouattara, told Reuters. "They have not taken him yet, but they are in the process, they are in the building."
Residents near Gbagbo's residence told of fighting and explosions.
"We can hear automatic gunfire and also the thud of heavy weapons. There's shooting all over the place. Cars are speeding in all directions and so are the fighters," Alfred Kouassi told Reuters.
Elsewhere in Abidjan Gbagbo's generals had ordered a stop to the fighting and ordered their troops to turn in their arms and hand themselves over to the United Nations peacekeeping forces. As of Wednesday virtually all of Gbagbo's troops have abandoned their posts or defected. The generals have announced that fighting has ended.
But the situation remained uncertain with armed bands roaming the city and entering hotels. Civilians in Abidjan say there has been sporadic gunfire across the city with pro-Gbagbo militias still on the streets and growing fears of revenge killings.
Gbagbo's refusal to negotiate frustrated the French who had earlier said they were on the verge of convincing him to surrender. French Prime Minister François Fillon told lawmakers that two of Gbagbo's generals were negotiating conditions for his surrender, the Wall Street Journal reported.
"We are on the brink of convincing him to leave power," France's foreign minister, Alain Juppe, told parliament.
But hours later Wednesday, Juppe said that negotiations had stopped.
“Everybody’s dropped him,” said Juppe, in a radio interview in Paris. Juppe said that Gbagbo displayed and "absurd" stubbornness and was isolated.
A U.N. official told Reuters that Gbagbo had demanded that he be safeguarded by the United Nations Operation on Cote d'Ivoire (UNOCI), which has about 7,500 peacekeepers in Ivory Coast.
Gbagbo had refused to step down since a November presidential election in which the international community recognized his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, as the winner. Ivory Coast has seen violence and turmoil since the election as forces loyal to both sides have tried to claim legitimacy and take control of the country.
The two main bridges in Abidjan that link the city had been held by Gbagbo's forces, but now 19 armored vehicles from Ouattara's side hold the bridges. Gbagbo's men have abandoned the machine gun nests in the city from where they used to shoot at Ouattara's supporters.
State television has been seized by Ouattara's forces and is off the air. The Presidential Palace, which were Gbagbo's offices, is now held by Ouattara.
Ouattara's forces have entered Gbagbo's presidential residence but there is a small armed guard of Gbagbo's men guarding the entrance to the basement bunker where Gbagbo is with some family members and aides.
Despite the collapse of his armed forces and talk of a surrender, Gbagbo made public statements that he will not cede power.
To counter the reports that he had surrendered, Gbagbo gave interviews to two French broadcasters, saying that he will not step down. Instead he demanded a recount.
A defiant Gbagbo told French TV channel LCI that he was not willing to surrender and his army had simply called for a ceasefire, Reuters reported. He said he will cling to power until the end.
"I'm not a kamikaze. I love life. My voice is not the voice of a martyr, no, no, no, I'm not looking for death. It's not my aim to die," he said.
"Militarily, he's finished. Economically, he's finished. Diplomatically, he's finished. But he is still hanging on," said a French journalist in Abidjan. "Maybe we will have to wait until he runs out of food and water. Eventually he will have to come out."
Diplomats in Abidjan speculated that Gbagbo believed he still held a bargaining position, according to the New York Times.
“It’s over but he’s still trying to play games,” said a senior Western diplomat in Abidjan. “The exact substance of what he’s trying to negotiate is foggy.”
Talk of a likely surrender comes after a military offensive against Gbagbo on Monday by French and U.N. forces as well as forces loyal to Ouattara.
"In the end, it came down to force," the New York Times reported.
U.N. and French helicopters attacked targets at Gbagbo's residence, offices and military bases.
The United Nations insisted it was acting in self-defense and to protect civilians. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution giving its 12,000-strong peacekeeping operation the authority to prevent civilian casualties, Al Jazeera reports.
The resolution grants the operation authority "to use all necessary means to carry out its mandate to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence ... including to prevent the use of heavy weapons against the civilian population."
About 5,000 of Ouattara's forces entered Abidjan, the main city and commercial capital, on Monday as they made their final advance against Gbagbo.
Ouattara now appears to be trying to prevent a bloody shootout in which Gbagbo and others would be killed.
Officials for Ouattara have said they want Gbagbo to be kept alive so he can be prosecuted for the atrocities he and his forces have committed in the four months after the selection.
-- Marco Chown Oved contributed reporting from Abidjan and Hanna Ingber Win contributed reporting from Mumbai.