|Conflict in Cote d'Ivoire could be over 'in hours', says Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister [Al Jazeera]
Reports have said Laurent Gbagbo, Cote d'Ivoire's incumbent leader, is negotiating surrender and protection from the United Nations.
However, in an interview with French television on Tuesday, Gbagbo denied the reports.
Earlier, Al Jazeera's Haru Mutasa, reporting from Bassam, just outside Abidjan, quoted a UN official as saying "we cannot confirm his surrender but we are ready to offer protection if requested."
Another UN official said Gbagbo "has not surrendered but has expressed the willingness to do so".
He said negotiations with Gbagbo's people in Abidjan are continuing.
There were conflicting reports about Gbagbo's moves.
Reuters earlier reported that he had surrendered.
"President Gbagbo has ... surrendered and has asked UNOCI's protection," Reuters quoted an internal UN document as saying.
However, Gbagbo has insisted in a French television interview that he won the presidential election and was not ready to negotiate his departure.
Speaking by phone with LCI television, Gbagbo said Alassane Outtara, widely recognised as the winner of last year's presidential vote, "did not win the elections."
LCI said the interview was conducted on Tuesday.
French officials say negotiations are under way for Gbagbo to leave power.
Gbagbo began negotiating following a fierce assault on Abidjan by forces loyal to his presidential rival Alassane Ouattara, backed by UN and French helicopter air strikes.
Ahoua Don Mello, a government spokesman for Gbagbo, said they were also negotiating judicial and security conditions for Gbagbo's camp and his relatives," adding that they are talking to the French government which is relaying the talks to the Ouattara camp.
|YJ Choi, UN special representative for Cote d'Ivoire told Al Jazeera: 'the war is over'
Officials said Gbagbo was huddled in a bunker and was surrounded by troops supporting Ouattara.
Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, said negotiators are close to convincing Gbagbo to leave.
"We are aware," Juppe said, asked if he was aware of Gbagbo being in negotiations to leave. "If there are possibilities to see him leave power then we are ready," he said.
Meanwhile, YJ Choi, the special representative of the United Nations secretary-general for Cote d'Ivoire told Al Jazeera "the war is over".
"All the generals who are fighting for Gbagbo have deserted him, it is over. There is no army, there is no flighting," he said.
Soldiers loyal to Gbagbo have asked for a ceasefire in the face of the offensive launched by Ouattara's forces last week.
General Philippe Mangou told AFP news agency on Tuesday that his troops had stopped fighting and requested a ceasefire after UN and French troops backed Ouattara's forces.
Ally Coulibaly, the ambassador to France appointed by Ouattara, told French radio station RFI that he understood Gbagbo was negotiating his surrender, but admitted Abidjan was a "rumour mill".
"What I have learned is that since yesterday he [Gbagbo] has been seeking to negotiate. It is not too late," said the diplomat, a close advisor to Ouattara.
Coulibaly said he did not know through what channels Gbagbo was negotiating or whether a mediator was involved.
Gbagbo's options limited
Our correspondent said earlier that Gbagbo's options are limited.
"The fighting seems to have stopped for a while, which means perhaps something could be happening. No one knows where Gbagbo is but wherever he is, his options are clearly limited. The only option he could have is accept some kind of exit package, maybe going into exile."
French president Nicolas Sarkozy spoke to Ouattara twice on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Cote d'Ivoire.
|Forces loyal to Ouattara have cornered Gbagbo and his closest supporters in Abidjan [Reuters]
Sarkozy said in a statement that he had authorised the French force to help in the operation following an appeal from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said the use of force was necessary to prevent further attacks on civilians.
"In the past few days, forces loyal to Mr Gbagbo have intensified and escalated their use of heavy weapons such as mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns against the civilian population in Abidjan," Ban said in a statement.
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."
Our correspondent said people living outside Abidjan were "on edge" after hearing that an "all-out assault by Ouattara's forces is imminent".
"The disturbing thing is the checkpoints and barricades being manned by young men who are unemployed, some of them intoxicated, armed with machetes, [who] decide who goes in and out of Abidjan," she said.
Adam Gaye, a west African analyst, told Al Jazeera that Ouattara's government will be tainted by the loss of life in the uprising against Gbagbo.
Barack Obama, the US president, has renewed his call for Gbagbo to immediately leave power to help end violence.
"To end this violence and prevent more bloodshed, former president Gbagbo must stand down immediately, and direct those who are fighting on his behalf to lay down their arms," Obama said in a statement on Tuesday.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies