[UPDATE] 4-5 6:00 p.m
Ivory Coast incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo denied on Tuesday reports that he was surrendering. The Ivorian army, however, has called for a ceasefire, he said.
"The army has called for the suspension of hostilities ... and it is currently discussing the conditions of a ceasefire with the other forces on the ground, but on a political level no decision has yet been taken," Gbagbo told France's LCI television, as reported by Reuters.
Earlier, an internal UN memo seen by Reuters on Tuesday indicated that Gbagbo had surrendered and was seeking protection from the United Nations Operation in Cote D’Ivoire (UNOCI). But according to new reports, Gbagbo continues to maintain that he is the winner of last year's elections.
U.S. President Barack Obama has asked Gbagbo to surrender while voicing strong support for U.N. and French military action in the region.
"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 Tuesday. "Every day that the fighting persists will bring more suffering and further delay the future of peace and prosperity that the people of Cote d'Ivoire deserve."
A day earlier, evangelical leaders had called for Gbagbo's removal from power in order to secure peace in the region.
"Scripture calls us to pray for our leaders and all who are in authority," said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. "I am praying that President Gbagbo will step down gracefully for the good of his country and for the peace of the entire region of West Africa."
Anderson also mentioned that western missionaries had helped develop the French-speaking nation since the 1920s "planting churches and supporting schools, hospitals and other social ministries."
On Monday in the country’s largest city, Abidjan, French and UN helicopters fired at the presidential palace, Gbagbo's home and at two military barracks held by the 65-year-old strongman. Meanwhile, opposition forces loyal to internationally-recognized Alassane Ouattara overran the city in the final assault to oust Gbagbo.
Later, Ouattara’s fighters captured the presidential home despite a fierce battle over the property. Gbagbo was not at his home at the time and had reportedly fled to a bunker. Hours later, Gbagbo's forces demanded a ceasefire and most of the fighting stopped.
Y. P. Choi, a special representative for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, announced on Al-Jazeera TV that "the war is over" and that Gbagbo had surrendered. Choi also mentioned that Gbagbo's top generals had defected and his fighters "simply melted away." However, small-scale fighting continues for isolated loyalist units who have not received news of the ceasefire, Choi said.
The U.S. president praised the UN and French military intervention that started since the recent crisis began when Gbagbo refused to quit after losing to Alassane Ouattara in the Ivorian 2010 presidential election.
"I strongly support the role that United Nations peacekeepers are playing as they enforce their mandate to protect civilians, and I welcome the efforts of French forces who are supporting that mission," Obama stated.
Nonetheless, the international community was alarmed by reports of a massacre last week in the western Ivory Coast town of Duékoué. It is unclear among those killed who are civilians and who are actual combatants. It is also unknown how many people were exactly killed. The International Red Cross reported that 800 people died. Caritas, a Catholic charity organization, said that its staff counted nearly 1,000 bodies.
Ouattara denied responsibility for the atrocities while alleging that the existence of mass graves were left by Gbagbo forces. Should a subsequent investigation implicate his forces in civilian deaths, Ouattara may lose his otherwise stellar international standing. How much control he actually had over his fighters remains unclear.
Gbagbo ascended into power in 2000 but repeatedly postponed elections. Last year, he allowed voting to proceed but rejected the results that favored his long-time opponent Ouattara.
A former opposition leader himself, Gbagbo holds a personal grudge against Ouattara who was Prime Minister under then president Félix Houphouet-Boigny in the 1990s. Together with his wife, Gbagbo had been imprisoned.
The crisis came to a head in late March when Ouattara supporters launched a full-scale offensive sweeping southward in a bid to oust Gbagbo. Both Gbagbo and Ouattara forces have been accused of committing atrocities.
"Tragically, the violence that we are seeing could have been averted had Laurent Gbagbo respected the results of last year's presidential election," Obama said.