French forces take over Abidjan airport

French forces secure country's main airport as fighters amass in battle to control Cote d'Ivoire's commercial capital.

    French forces have taken over the airport in Abidjan as forces loyal to Cote d'Ivoire's presidential rivals continue to battle for control of the country's main city.

    Reporting the French intervention, state television urged the city's residents to mobilise and protect Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president. The channel also accused Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, of wanting to engage in genocide in the West African country.

    Paris called for French citizens in Abidjan to assemble together without delay, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, said on Sunday.

    France is mulling a possible evacuation of its 12,000 citizens who live in the country because of the fighting.

    "[Sarkozy] has decided that all French citizens in Abidjan should be grouped together without delay to ensure their protection," the French president's office said.

    Gerard Longuet, the French defence minister, said on Sunday evening that the question of evacuation would be settled within hours.

    "We will not expose French people to being hostages or indirect victims of confrontation between these two forces," Longuet said in an interview on French television LCI.

    "Alert, alert... The French army is occupying since last night the airport of Felix Houphouet Boigny," the caption read over images of Gbagbo that were aired late on Saturday.

    "Seven cargo planes, transporting 100 tanks and more than 2,000 soldiers; elements of the airport squadron have been taken prisoner. Sarkozy's men are preparing a Rwandan genocide in Cote d'Ivoire. Ivorians, let us go out en masse and occupy the streets. Let us stay standing," it continued.

    The latest developments come as a fierce standoff between fighters loyal to Gbagbo and his rival for power Alassane Ouattara, the country's internationally recognised leader, intensify.

    Gbagbo's force retook the bridge leading to his presidential palace on Saturday after the opposition had appeared poised to topple him.

    Pro-Ouattara forces had marched easily into the country's largest city, where they encircled the presidential palace and Gbagbo's home on Thursday and Friday.

    France said its forces took over Abidjan airport on Saturday to facilitate the evacuation of foreigners and sent an additional 300 troops to the country, bringing its total deployment to 1,500.


    The latest fighting follows an alleged massacre of hundreds of people in the small town of Duekoue in the west.

    The United Nations mission in Ivory Coast [ONUCI] said on Saturday that traditional hunters known as Dozos had joined Ouattara's forces in killing 330 people in Duekoue.

    UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "concerned and alarmed" about reports that pro-Ouattara forces may have killed civilians in a conversation late on Saturday with Ouattara, who told him his forces were not involved in the Duekoue killings.

    Ouattara's government said in a statement that Dozos were not part of its forces and invited international human rights organisations to investigate the killings and rights violations.

    "The government [Ouattara's] notes with regret that the allegations of the deputy chief of ONUCI human rights division are not supported by any evidence after its preliminary investigation," the statement read.

    A Catholic charity, Caritas, said up to 1,000 people had been killed by unknown attackers wielding machetes and guns. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) earlier estimated the death toll at around 800 people.

    It is not clear whether the 330 counted by ONUCI were included in the figures.


    Alistair Dutton, the humanitarian director of Caritas, told Al Jazeera on Sunday that members of his organisation were on an investigating team, including UN officials and representatives of other NGOs, which travelled to Duekoue on Wednesday.

    "There they found the aftermath of a mass slaughter of somewhere between eight hundred and a thousand people who had been killed," he said. 

    The team found bodies lying in the streets and the bushes, he said.

    The victims appeared to have been civilians, Dutton said, who had been "caught up somehow between [the two] warring factions".
    According to Caritas, the killings occurred from Sunday 27 to Tuesday 29 March in the 'Carrefour' neighbourhood controlled by fighters loyal to Ouattara. It was not clear who the perpetrators were.

    The UN says it is investigating the alleged mass killings. Hundreds of UN peacekeepers are based in the town.

    Fleeing fighting

    Tens of thousands of Ivorian refugees have fled into neighbouring Liberia since the fighting began. Many others remain trapped inside Cote d'Ivoire.

    Particularly in Abidjan, many civilians are too scared to leave their homes.

    With foreigners targeted in the fighting in Abidjan, many are seeking refuge.

    French troops have escorted about 1,400 foreigners, a third of them French, to a French military camp in Port Bouet, near Abidjan.

    There were no immediate plans for the French army to evacuate the other foreigners, officials said.

    The UN mission in the Cote d’Ivoire began evacuating some 200 members of its staff after its headquarters were repeatedly attacked, Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker reported.

    Non-essential staff were evacuated several months ago. The UN's military personnel will remain.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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