PARIS – A man who's been friends for decades with Laurent Gbagbo says the Ivorian strongman reads Latin and Greek in the original, and may prefer to die than live in ignominy now that he's surrounded by his rival's forces.
In an interview Friday with The Associated Press, Guy Labertit showed dozens of snapshots of Gbagbo taken at the beginning of their friendship in the early 1980s when he was seeking political asylum in France.
The photos show a smiling young Gbagbo looking dapper in a trench coat, hamming it up with friends or strumming the guitar.
Now Gbagbo is believed to be holed up in a subterranean tunnel beneath the presidential residence in Abidjan as a standoff with Ivory Coast's democratically elected leader, Alassane Ouattara, drags on.
After negotiations failed, Ouattara said his forces were setting up a security perimeter around the compound, and would wait for Gbagbo and his family to run out of food and water rather than try to capture him.
"I don't think he will accept the destitution," Labertit said. "He wants to live but he doesn't want to live humiliated. That's for sure."
Labertit — the author of two books on Ivory Coast and a former African affairs adviser for France's opposition Socialist party — said he's visited the presidential residence on several occasions as Gbagbo's guest.
Gbagbo is believed to be hunkered down beneath the residence but Labertit said the residence has two subterranean levels and "it's absolutely not a bunker." The top level houses a Cabinet meeting room and a library-cum-lounge from which Gbagbo often addressed the Ivorian people.
The bottom level is filled with plumbing pipes and tubes. And on that lower level, there's a tunnel originally built to connect the president's home and the adjacent residence of the French ambassador — a symbol of the once-intimate relationship between Ivory Coast and its one-time European colonizer.
"I've seen the place," said Labertit. "The tunnel has been blocked, there's a metallic slab sealed on the wall. There's no door with keys."
Labertit said he last visited Gbagbo in February — less than two months after the Nov. 28 election that Ouattara won with 54 percent of the vote compared to Gbagbo's 46 percent.
"Gbagbo said he was ready to hold talks with Ouattara but he wouldn't agree to (Ouattara's) condition of signing a paper saying he hadn't won the elections," said Labertit. "He was absolutely convinced he'd won."
Politics aside, Labertit used only the most glowing terms to describe his friend, painting him as a spiritual and erudite man, learned in classical languages.
"On a human level, he's a generous man ... (who's) perhaps too quick to trust others," he said. "I'd say he's paying that excess of confidence in others now."
Associated Press writers Camille Rustici and Jenny Barchfield contributed to this report.