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Ivory Coast strongman's forces advance

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Forces supporting Ivory Coast's entrenched strongman broke through the security perimeter imposed around the presidential compound yesterday, firing on French helicopters in an advance that appeared to breathe new life into Laurent Gbagbo's camp, which had been teetering on the brink of defeat.

Residents in the Cocody district of Abidjan reported two hours of explosions and heavy arms fire before sunrise Saturday, and French forces said that helicopters attempting to evacuate diplomats from a residence near the presidential compound were hit by machine gun fire.

No French soldiers were injured in the attack by pro-Gbagbo forces, but the helicopters fired back, destroying one armored vehicle, said Cmdr. Frederic Daguillon, the French forces spokesman.

At the Golf Hotel, only a few miles from the presidential residence, soldiers loyal to internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara scrambled to defend the compound, sending out patrols and reporting heavy fighting.

"[Pro-Gbagbo] forces tried to attack the Golf," Felicien Sekongo, a spokesman for Ouattara's Republican forces, told The Associated Press. "They pushed into Cocody and Plateau districts but have been stopped and pushed back."

In power for a decade, Gbagbo refuses to step aside even though the UN has ruled that he lost the November presidential election to his political rival Ouattara. For the last four months Ouattara has been living out of the Golf Hotel, protected by UN forces as the internationally recognized leader of Ivory Coast.

Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power, has been confined to a bunker in his presidential compound protected and surrounded by his best fighters who reportedly since Thursday have gone without water or electricity.

Still, they repelled an initial attempt by Ouattara's forces to push into the residence.

-- AP

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