French forces hit military vehicles belonging to troops loyal to Côte d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo during a helicopter mission that rescued Japan’s ambassador to the West African country on Thursday.
The French went in after Gbagbo soldiers broke into the residence, where ambassador Yoshifumi Okamura and seven of his staff had taken shelter inside a safe room, armed forces spokesperson Thierry Burkhard said .
French forces, who have already joined helicopter raids to destroy Gbagbo’s heavy weapons, also struck two pick-up trucks belonging to armed assailants who tried to break into the French ambassador’s residence in the former colony.
The strikes came as forces loyal to presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara laid siege to Gbagbo’s own residence after an attempt to extract him from his bunker on Wednesday met with fierce resistance.
Fighting continued in the economic capital, Abidjan, as Ouattara’s forces tried to unseat Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power after losing last November’s presidential election to Ouattara, according to results certified by the United Nations.
Sporadic gunfire could be heard coming from Gbagbo’s presidential palace in the Plateau district on Thursday, a week after Ouattara’s soldiers arrived in the city.
Gbagbo is believed to be holed up in his personal residence, which lies in a cul-de-sac at the heart of the leafy, upscale Cocody embassy district.
The Japanese ambassador said mercenaries had stormed his residence. Burkhard said pro-Gbagbo loyalists had set up rocket launchers on the roof of the building.
“I was blocked in my room and these people had seized my residence,” Okamura said.
French troops abseiled down a rope from their helicopter before it landed and Okamura was taken on board.
Burkhard said the French forces, who were shot at, fired back in self-defence, destroying at least one armoured vehicle and two pick-up trucks. No French soldiers were injured but one of the Japanese officials was hurt.
Defence Minister Gerard Longuet told the French Senate that Gbagbo had about 1 000 men, 200 of whom are in his residence.
They include his feared Republican Guard and youth militias armed with heavy weapons, who pushed back an assault by Ouattara’s men on Wednesday after talks led by the United Nations and France to secure Gbagbo’s departure failed.
The former colonial power in Côte d’Ivoire has taken a leading role in talks to persuade Gbagbo to hand over to Ouattara and end the stand-off over the contested election in November.
“Gbagbo’s fall will happen, inevitably, in, I am not going to say the hours or days ahead, I am cautious,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Thursday.
“This has been going on for four months. When people say we should give time to mediation — we have given plenty of time to mediation efforts.”
Gbagbo, who has refused to recognise Ouattara’s victory, said on Wednesday he had no intention of stepping down.
Helicopters from French forces and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire bombarded Gbagbo’s heavy weapons stockpiles earlier this week, including those near his residence.
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 Advisers in New York.
Gbagbo has ruled Côte d’Ivoire 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. — Reuters