South Africa’s ambassador and embassy staff were in the process of being evacuated from the Côte d’Ivoire’s capital Abidjan, the department of international relations and cooperation said on Tuesday.
“We just want to clarify that there is an evacuation operation under way … they should be out of the country in no time,” spokesperson Clayson Monyela told the South African Press Association.
“They are not trapped but rather together and safe at the embassy. We have contact with them on an hourly basis,” he said.
The Pretoria News reported on Tuesday that ambassador Zodwa Lallie and her staff and their families were trapped in the divided country.
The report quoted Lallie as saying that United Nations peacekeepers could not take the staff to the airport because “they would be shot to pieces”.
Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane earlier said all South Africans had been evacuated from the country.
Monyela added later on Tuesday: “It is a process … we are hoping they will be out within the next 24 to 72 hours.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations and France say Côte d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo departure from power is being negotiated following a fierce assault by forces loyal to his rival backed by UN and French helicopter air strikes.
Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power since a UN certified election in November showed he lost to rival Alassane Ouattara, denied that he was willing to surrender, and rejected demands he recognise Ouattara as the winner of the poll.
Said by diplomats to be holed up in a bunker under his residence, Gbagbo told a French TV channel by telephone his army had called for a ceasefire after their weaponry was destroyed by French and UN airstrikes.
He reiterated that he considered himself the winner of last November’s elections and suggested talks with his rival, saying it was not his intention to cling to power to the bitter end.
“I’m not a kamikaze. I love life. My voice is not the voice of a martyr, no, no, no, I’m not looking for death. It’s not my aim to die,” Gbagbo told LCI.
“For peace to return to Ivory Coast, I and Ouattara, the two of us have to talk,” he added.
The long-delayed election in the world’s top cocoa producing nation was meant to end a 2002 to 2003 civil war, but Gbagbo’s refusal to cede power has plunged the country into a violent political stand-off that has killed over 1 500 people.
The International Criminal Court prosecutor said on Tuesday he was in talks with West African states about referring alleged atrocities in the Côte d’Ivoire to the court after a reported massacre in the west of the country.
Over the past week, forces loyal to Ouattara launched a major assault on Gbagbo’s last strongholds in Abidjan, driving home their campaign to oust him.
A United Nations internal document seen by Reuters on Tuesday said Gbagbo had surrendered but a UN official, under condition of anonymity, said later that Gbagbo had not yet done so but had suggested he wanted to, and had requested UN protection.
France said it expected a swift exit by Gbagbo.
“We are on the brink of convincing him to leave power,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé told Parliament in Paris on Tuesday.
Juppe said the negotiations were ongoing between Gbagbo’s close collaborators, the UN and French ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire, Jean-Marc Simon.
Gbagbo government spokesperson Ahoua Don Mello, who was taking part in the negotiations, said the parties were still in talks.
“Some points are still being discussed. Nothing has been signed, Gbagbo has not signed anything,” Don Mello told Reuters.
The UN document said fighting in Abidjan and elsewhere in the country had stopped since midday on Tuesday, and that Côte d’Ivoire’s generals had asked the UN peacekeeper force to protect pro-Gbagbo soldiers and take possession of all their weapons.
However a Western diplomat said sporadic gunfire could still be heard in the well-to-do Abidjan suburb of Cocody as some armed pro-Gbagbo militia men prowled the streets.
“I spent quite a lot of the day in the cellar again because of fighting at the bottom of the street,” the diplomat said.
“It is clear the situation is not under control. There are lots of pro-Gbagbo militia running around with guns,” he added.
Hannah Koep, Côte d’Ivoire analyst at London-based consultancy Control Risks said Gbagbo’s position was nevertheless weak.
“It looks like Gbagbo is trying to negotiate his way out. What he can offer is another matter … his negotiating position is much weaker than a couple of weeks ago,” said
The conflict drove cocoa prices lower on Tuesday as dealers bet on a swift end to Gbagbo’s rule and a resumption of exports. The country’s defaulted $2,3-billion Eurobond rose as the assault raised expectations for repayment. – Sapa, Reuters