PARIS (Reuters) - France said on Tuesday it was aware of negotiations under way for the departure of Laurent Gbagbo from Ivory Coast, amid fierce fighting between his forces and loyalists of rival presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said the crisis in Ivory Coast could be resolved in a matter of hours.
France said its military would intervene in Ivory Coast only for as long as the United Nationsasks it to. Overnight, U.N. and French helicopters conducted an operation to destroy weapons belonging to Gbagbo's forces.
"We are aware," Foreign Minister Alain 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," Juppe told reporters.
President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke twice to rival Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara on Tuesday.
An Ivorian source told Reuters that Alcide Djedje, foreign minister to Ggbagbo, was at the residence of the French ambassador in Abidjan. He said Djedje was there to negotiate, but did not explain what for.
France's intervention in its former colony has infuriated Gbagbo's camp, which already blames Paris for supporting the north of the country in a 2002-03 civil war, and comes at a tense time for French diplomacy after Sarkozy's spearheading of the West's military response to the crisis in Libya.
Gbagbo has defied international pressure to give up the presidency of the cocoa growing country after an election in November that U.N.-certified results showed Ouattara won. At least 1,500 people have died in the standoff.
Foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said the aim of the U.N.-led mission was to destroy heavy weapons that threatened the lives of civilians in Ivory Coast, where a spurt in fighting has turned the city of Abidjan into a war zone.
"France's intervention has no other aim than to help the UNOCI to neutralize heavy weapons of Laurent Gbagbo's forces," Valero told a news briefing, using the acronym for the U.N. operation in Ivory Coast, long supported by Licorne.
"The intervention will finish as soon as UNOCI has fulfilled that aim, which has been fixed by resolution 1975."
Forces loyal to Ouattara have launched a major assault on the presidential palace in Abidjan, driving home their campaign to oust Gbagbo after Tuesday's helicopter missile strikes left his military bases in flames.
France's 1,650-strong Licorne, or "Unicorn," force in Ivory Coast fired on armored vehicles and heavy weapons depots, destroying rocket-propelled grenade launchers and television transmitters with missiles.
GBAGBO DIGS IN, ADVISOR SAYS
Toussaint Alain, a senior Gbagbo adviser currently in Paris, said earlier on Tuesday that Gbgabo remained at the presidential residence despite the night of bombing that had weakened his military capacity and denied the incumbent leader was planning to give himself up.
"He is alive, has not been captured and has no intention to surrender. He is at the head of state's residence in Abidjan," Alain told Reuters, describing the French intervention as a "coup d'etat."
"There have not been new strikes by the Licorne force this morning," armed forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard said.
"Last night, heavy weapons were destroyed so the threat to civilians is lower today," he said, adding that the U.N. resolution still stood and France could be asked to support further action if more threats are identified.
France, which has roughly 12,000 nationals in Ivory Coast, is not carrying out mandatory evacuations but has advised its nationals group together and is helping any that want to leave. About 2,000 foreigners, including several hundred Libyans, have gathered at the Licorne base and a nearby sports center in Abidjan and French military planes used to bring in extra troops this week have flown around 450 of them to Dakarin Senegal or Lome in Togo.
Since Friday, Sarkozy has held three closed-door sessions with top ministers about the cocoa-producing nation and made fresh calls for Gbgabo to go and for the violence to stop.
Gbagbo is labeling Ouattara the West's man and himself as a defender against foreign interference.
There was still no news on Tuesday on two French nationals abducted from an Abidjan hotel on Monday, sources at Sarkozy's office said, nor were there any immediate plans to evacuate French citizens, government spokesman Francois Baroin said.
(Additional reporting by Yann Le Guernigou and Catherine Bremer, Writing by Catherine Bremer)