Ivory Coast’s defeated leader Laurent Gbagbo was on Tuesay night sheltering with his family in the basement of his surrounded residence in the main city, Abidjan, amid reports he was now prepared to surrender.
Gbagbo’s compound was surrounded by troops loyal to his rival, United Nations-recognised President Alassane Ouattara.
The UN said three generals loyal to Gbagbo were last night negotiating terms for his surrender in return for guarantees of safety for them and the embattled “leader”.
France said negotiators were on the brink of agreeing his departure.
President since 2000, Gbagbo had refused to leave office even though the Ivorian election commission declared him the loser of November’s run-off vote, and the UN certified the result.
But on Tuesday night a besieged Gbabgo was pleading for safety.
Ouattara’s spokesperson said if Gbagbo was captured, he would be arrested and “brought to justice”.
A government spokesperson, Ahoua Don Mello, told Reuters on Tuesday Gbagbo was negotiating his surrender and safe departure.
“There are direct negotiations based on African Union recommendations which said Alassane Ouattara is president,” Mello said.
“They are also negotiating judicial and security conditions for Gbagbo’s camp and his relatives,” Mello said, adding that they were talking to the French government which was relaying the talks to the Ouattara camp.
Gbagbo’s Foreign minister Alcide Djedje, who sought refuge at the French embassy, said there was now a ceasefire.
“The war is over,” Djedje told the BBC, speaking from the embassy. He said the two sides had agreed to a ceasefire, brokered by the UN.
Forces loyal to Ouattara, a former International Monetary Fund economist, began a dramatic military offensive last week, sweeping in from the north and west.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke to Ouattara twice on Tuesday to discuss the situation in the war-torn country.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the raids launched on Monday evening against Gbagbo’s arsenal were to stop attacks on civilians.
UN Mi-24 helicopters were reported to have bombarded five targets: Gbagbo’s residence, a republican guard base, state television headquarters, the Akban paramilitary base and the Akouedo arms depot.
UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said a UN Security Council resolution authorised such action.
The use and calibre of heavy weapons by Gbagbo forces had, he said, escalated sharply in recent days.
The UN mission in Ivory Coast (Unoci) had also been under almost continuous attack, he said.
But Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said:
“We are now looking into the legal side of the issue because peacekeepers had a mandate which requires them to be neutral and impartial.”
Following four months of attempts to negotiate Gbagbo’s departure, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution giving the 12 000-strong peacekeeping operation the right “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”.