ABIDJAN (Reuters) - United Nations 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.”
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 inside a safe room, French 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 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, bursts of gunfire could be heard coming from Gbagbo’s presidential palace in the Plateau district and also in the upscale Cocody neighbourhood where his residence.
“Right now there is shooting every 30 minutes,” a Cocody resident who only gave his name as Jean-Claude said by phone.
But there was no sign of a major assault by Ouattara’s forces, whose attack on Gbagbo’s personal residence was repelled on Wednesday. Gbagbo is thought to be holed up in the residence, which lies at the heart of the Cocody embassy district.
Defence Minister 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.
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 jerry cans to walk around the neighbourhood and search for water,” Jean-Claude, a resident, said.
“As for food, there is nothing left. People have to queue up in long lines to buy even a single baguette,” he said.
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.
“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.
Ouattara commander Toure Moussa said talks with Gbagbo’s camp were still ongoing, but Juppe appeared to dismiss that.
“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,” Juppe said.
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 Ivory Coast 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 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 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.