DAKAR, Senegal — The end of Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo’s rule appeared to be nearing Thursday as his rival’s troops approached the country’s main city of Abidjan, his own army chief of staff abandoned his post, and his opponents claimed substantial defections of his troops and police officers.
After refusing to leave the presidential palace despite losing an election four months ago — a refusal that has led to hundreds of deaths, international condemnation and sanctions, the financial collapse of what had been West Africa’s economic star, and the country being plunged back into civil war — Gbagbo faced the gravest threat yet to his rule.
With hostile troops bearing down, top officials of Alassane Ouattara — the man recognized by the United Nations, the African Union, and other international bodies as the winner of the November election — gave Gbagbo a deadline to give up.
Across the country, Gbagbo’s security services and soldiers, who for four months have been the violent scourge of civilians in Ouattara-supporting neighborhoods, appeared to surrender with barely a shot, leaving the path open for a rapid advance by forces loyal to Ouattara.
“Today they are at the doors of Abidjan,” Ouattara said in a televised speech Thursday, appealing to Gbagbo’s forces to switch sides. “Put yourselves at the disposition of your country” and “regain your legal status,” he urged, speaking in the formal language for which Ouattara, a former prime minister and International Monetary Fund official, is known.
Ouattara, blockaded for four months in an Abidjan hotel by Gbagbo’s soldiers, attributed the swift change in circumstances — Gbagbo’s increasing vulnerability and his own unexpected rise — to the heterogeneous band of soldiers he called the Republican Forces, a mix of former rebels from a 2002 uprising and defectors from Gbagbo’s side.
“They have decided to re-establish democracy,” Ouattara said. “In all the towns they passed through, the people were joyful.”
In a matter of days, critical cities, — including the nation’s administrative capital, Yamoussoukrou, and the main cocoa-exporting port of San Pedro — fell to Ouattara’s forces with little combat. Officials of his government said resistance had principally come from hired Liberian mercenaries.
As many as 1 million people have already fled Abidjan, the United Nations said, and Thursday residents described the city as tense, quiet, and deserted, with periodic bursts of gunfire, explosions, and sightings of pickup trucks full of Gbagbo’s armed militiamen downtown. Firing was reported around the state broadcaster, and in the morning the city prison was attacked and some 5,000 prisoners freed.
Gbagbo’s youthful supporters, the Young Patriots, who have earned a reputation for violence, manned roadblocks and roamed Abidjan.
“There’s sporadic gunfire. It’s very heavy. Nobody is outside,” said Yacouba Doumbia, a lawyer and member of a local human rights organization. “It’s very, very dangerous. The armed bands have taken possession of the city.”