ABIDJAN, Apr 7 : French forces hit 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 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 spokesman 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-defense, destroying at least one armored vehicle and two pick-up trucks. No French soldiers were injured but one of the Japanese officials was hurt.
Defense Minister Gerard Longuet told the French Senate Gbagbo had around 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 Ivory Coast 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.