U.N. troops surround Gbagbo's "last defenders"

ABIDJAN Thu Apr 7, 2011 7:26pm BST

1 of 29. Prisoners held by forces loyal to Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara are seen in Abidjan April 7, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Emmanuel Braun

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ABIDJAN (Reuters) - U.N. peacekeepers have surrounded the "last defenders" of Ivory Coast incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo, France said on Thursday, after a week of heavy fighting to unseat him.

Forces loyal to rival presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara have been waging an offensive in Abidjan to topple Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power after losing last November's election to Ouattara, according to results certified by the United Nations.

"At this moment the military situation is as follows; the UNOCI (United Nations mission in Ivory Coast) troops have surrounded in a limited area the last defenders of the previous president Gbagbo," French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet told the French Senate on Thursday.

A United Nations spokesman in Abidjan told Reuters that the United Nations had sent forces into the Cocody neighbourhood, where Gbagbo is believed to be holed up in his heavily defended compound, but did not plan to intervene.

"We have sent a patrol to Cocody and the surrounding area, but it is not to intervene," U.N. spokesman Hamadoun Toure told Reuters by telephone. "I am not aware that Ouattara has requested our intervention at this stage."

Ouattara's envoy to the United Nations, Youssoufou Bamba, said on Thursday he expected the standoff to be over soon, adding that Ouattara might within days end a ban on cocoa exports which he imposed in January to squeeze Gbagbo's access to funds. Ivory Coast is the world's leading cocoa producer.

"The standoff will be over very soon," he told a news conference in New York. "No negotiation."

Earlier, French forces hit military vehicles belonging to troops loyal to Gbagbo during a helicopter-borne mission that rescued Japan's ambassador to the West African country.

The French went in overnight after Gbagbo soldiers broke into the Japanese residence, where ambassador Yoshifumi Okamura and seven of his staff had taken shelter in a safe room, French armed forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard said.

Bamba said on Thursday India's ambassador to Ivory Coast was also being evacuated, while Israel and the United States had asked for help with evacuations.

RESIDENTS DESPERATE

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 were carried out after Ouattara laid siege to Gbagbo's own residence after an attempt to extract him from his bunker on Wednesday met with fierce resistance.

A week after Ouattara's soldiers arrived in the city, gunfire could be heard coming from Gbagbo's presidential palace in the Plateau district and also in the upscale Cocody neighbourhood where his residence is located.

"Right now there is shooting every 30 minutes," a Cocody resident, who gave his name as Jean-Claude, said by phone.

There was no sign of a major assault by Ouattara's forces, whose attack on Gbagbo's personal residence was repelled on Wednesday. Gbagbo was believed to be holed up in his residence.

Longuet told the French Senate Gbagbo had about 1,000 men, 200 of whom were in the residence.

They included his feared Republican Guard and youth militias armed with heavy weapons, who repulsed an assault by Ouattara's men on Wednesday after talks led by the United Nations and France to secure Gbagbo's departure failed.

A week of fighting for control of the city has left terrified residents scrambling to find food and water, with frequent power cuts and hospitals overwhelmed with wounded.

"Every morning people have to take jerrycans to walk around the neighbourhood and search for water," Cocody resident Jean-Claude said. "As for food, there is nothing left. People have to queue up in long lines to buy even a single baguette."

France has taken a leading role in talks to persuade Gbagbo to hand over to Ouattara and end the standoff which followed the contested presidential 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.

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 bombarded Gbagbo's heavy weapons stockpiles earlier this week, including those near his residence.

Political analysts said Ouattara forces, who swept south last week in a lightly contested march towards Abidjan, could struggle to defeat Gbagbo's remaining presidential guard and militias unless they are backed by French and U.N. forces.

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 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 led to more than 1,500 deaths.

(Additional reporting by Mark John in Abidjan, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, John Irish in Paris, George Fominyen in Dakar; Writing by Silvia Aloisi and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Dobbie)

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