French helicopter hits Gbagbo forces

2011-04-07 09:05

Abidjan – French forces destroyed military vehicles belonging to troops loyal to Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo during a helicopter-borne mission that rescued Japan’s ambassador to the West African country today.

The French, who have already joined helicopter raids to destroy Gbagbo’s heavy weapons, went in after Gbagbo soldiers broke into the residence, where ambassador Yoshifumi Okamura, along with seven of his staff, had taken shelter inside a safe room, French armed forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard said.

The rescue came as forces loyal to presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara laid siege to Gbagbo’s own residence nearby after an attempt to pluck him from his bunker on Wednesday met with fierce resistance.

Fighting continued in Abidjan as Ouattara’s forces tried to unseat Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power after losing a November election to Ouattara, according to UN-certified results.

Sporadic explosions broke the silence of one of the quieter nights since Ouattara’s soldiers arrived in the economic capital a week ago, a Reuters witness said.

Burkhard said pro-Gbagbo loyalists had set up rocket launchers on the roof of the Japanese embassy.

“The Japanese authorities asked the United Nations to act and Unoci (The UN mission in Ivory Coast) asked Licorne (French troops) as it has the means to evacuate,” he said.

The French forces, who were shot at, used a helicopter to airlift the Japanese officials to safety.

“The French forces fired back in self defence, destroying at least one armoured vehicle and two pick-up trucks.”

No soldiers were injured but one of the Japanese officials was hurt.

Ouattara forces had tried to storm Gbagbo’s residence in the upscale Cocody neighbourhood yesterday after talks led by the United Nations and France to secure Gbagbo’s departure failed, but they were pushed back by heavy weapons fire, a western diplomatic source who lives nearby said.

The former colonial power in Ivory Coast, France has taken a leading role in talks to persuade Gbagbo to hand over to Ouattara and end the standoff over the contested election in November.

A UN spokesperson in New York said negotiations with Gbagbo’s camp were continuing, but it was not clear if they would lead anywhere, especially as Gbagbo himself told French radio he had no intention of stepping down.

Helicopters commanded by the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast bombarded Gbagbo’s heavy weapons stockpiles earlier this week, including those near his residence – but those attacks ended on Tuesday.

Analysts said Ouattara forces, who swept south last week in a lightly contested march toward Abidjan, could struggle to best Gbagbo’s remaining presidential guard and militias.

“Just like in Libya, it’s going to take both the rebels and outside forces to push Gbagbo out,” said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, analyst at DaMina Advisors in New York.

Gbagbo has ruled Ivory Coast since 2000 and blames Paris for supporting the north of the country in the civil war of 2002-03. Rebels from that war now make up the bulk of Ouattara’s force.

Last year’s long-delayed election in the world’s top cocoa producing nation was meant to draw a line under the civil war, but Gbagbo’s refusal to give up power has plunged the country into violence that has killed more than 1,500 people. 

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