In Ivory Coast, as Abidjan Is Ransacked, Where Is Gbagbo?

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Luc Gnago / Reuters

Smoke rises from the city center of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on April 1, 2011. Fierce fighting spread across Abidjan that day as troops loyal to Laurent Gbagbo fended off attacks by forces seeking to install rival presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara

Heavy gun battles raged around the last bastions of Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo as the United Nations warned both sides to rein in their soldiers; the countdown to Gbagbo's exit began. The boom of large weapons rang across the city as forces loyal to President-elect Alassane Ouattara targeted the two official presidential residences and the state broadcaster. The state broadcaster changed hands between the pro-Ouattara Republican Forces and Gbagbo's Republican Guards at least twice overnight, while the luxurious presidential residence where Gbagbo is believed to be hunkered down also came under attack.

A report attributed to the French embassy claimed that Gbagbo had fled his residence but that his whereabouts are unknown. Said one security source: "If the news reaches the [pro-Gbagbo] forces that he is no longer in his residence, it will be a blow for morale, no matter what instructions they are under."

The fighting has been ferocious. A resident who lives close to the presidential residence said explosions had caused one of his windows to shatter. "I am at home with my elderly mother and children, and all of them haven't stopped crying for the last day. The noise is so terrible, no one can sleep, no one can go out. We're all traumatized," said the resident, who requested anonymity. Looting has been widespread in Abidjan, the country's largest city and its center of power.

The 2,300-strong elite Republican Guards form a last pocket of resistance for Gbagbo. He is now entirely dependent on them: army support crumbled around him following the flight of top army officers to the South African embassy on March 31. "The Republican Guards are fighting for an ideological belief, so they will be prepared to fight to the death," a military source who requested anonymity told TIME. "Not to mention Gbagbo has been stashing arms and ammunition for months leading up to this time. The battles can potentially go on until ammunition runs out, but finally Gbagbo will no longer be able to restock." Gbagbo has refused to step down as President since a U.N.-certified runoff ended with Ouattara the declared and internationally recognized winner.

The headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Ivory Coast (known as UNOCI) came under heavy gunfire Thursday afternoon, March 31, from Gbagbo's forces, who were entrenched at the Ministry of Defense, close to the presidential palace in Abidjan. The U.N. troops returned fire; the exchange lasted close to three hours. A spokesperson for Ouattara's government said other battles were "ongoing."

The U.N. mission warned both Gbagbo and Ouattara to rein in their fighters after looting erupted in some parts of the city. "UNOCI warns all the political and military leaders of all the forces that they will be held personally responsible for human-rights violations and abuses perpetrated by armed soldiers or groups operating on their orders," the organization said in a statement.

Clouds of smoke dotted the skyline where shops had been gutted. Ali Ahmed, 56, a Lebanese immigrant, said his restaurant had been burned in the early morning hours by youths. "They claimed it was revenge against Lebanese, who are supposedly all Gbagbo supporters," a distressed Ahmed said from the Gbagbo neighborhood of Youpougon. "But the gang included both Gbagbo and Ouattara supporters. It had nothing to do with politics — it was just vandalism."