|Fighting flared across Abidjan as forces loyal to Ouattara streamed into the city from the north
Soldiers loyal to Cote d'Ivoire's strongman Laurent Gbagbo have asked for a ceasefire, in the face of an offensive to unseat him by internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara, his army chief said.
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, who launched a lightning offensive last week.
UN and French warplanes attacked key targets in Abidjan on Monday.
Earlier, Gbagbo strongholds were surrounded by Ouattara's troops and a fight was under way for control of the gendarmerie camp in Cocody district, residents said, as heavy weapons fire shook the city for a second day.
Ouattara's camp said it believed Gbagbo was negotiating an exit from a decade in power, but a spokesman earlier said he was not ready to surrender and remained in control of the presidential palace and a key military barracks.
Heavy fighting was continuing in Abidjan on Tuesday morning. Machine gun and heavy weapons fire could be heard near the palace before dawn, witnesses told Reuters, while a spokesman for Ouattara's government has claimed its troops have already occupied Gbagbo's official presidential residence further to the east in Abidjan.
"Yes, they are inside his residence. They are in control," Patrick Achi told Reuters by telephone. "But if Gbagbo's there or not, I do not know."
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.
According to an Ivorian source of Reuters news agency, Alcide Djedje, the foreign minister of Cote d'Ivoire, is at the residence of the French ambassador in Abidjan.
"It is true that the minister Djedje is at the residence of the French ambassador," the source said asking not to be named.
The source added that Djedje was there to negotiate, but did not explain what for. The TCI television channel controlled by Ouattara said the foreign minister and his chief of protocol were seeking refuge at the residence.
Hamadoun Toure, a spokesperson for the UN mission in Cote d'Ivoire, told Al Jazeera that the UN does not have confirmation on these alleged talks.
Al Jazeera's Haru Mutasa, reporting from Bassam, just outside Abidjan, said 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."
United Nations and French military forces launched attacks against Gbagbo's heavy weaponry on Monday claiming the weapons had been used to target civilians.
'Gbagbo still in Abidjan'
Don Ahou Mello, a spokesman for Gbagbo, said the incumbent president's home has been hit at least 50 times by a UN Mi-24 helicopter. Mello also confirmed on Tuesday that a major military camp had been destroyed during Monday's attack.
Mello said that Gbagbo "is still in Abidjan" but refused to speculate on whether he was considering resigning.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy spoke to Ouattara twice on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Cote d'Ivoire.
"There have not been new strikes by the Licorne force this morning," Thierry Burkhard, the French armed forces spokesman, said, referring to France's 1,650-strong force which destroyed rocket-propelled grenade launchers and television transmitters with missiles.
|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."
Ouattara's forces have effectively cornered Gbagbo and his closest supporters after four days of fierce fighting.
Al Jazeera's Mutasa said the 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.