French police were deployed to protect Ouattara's supporters after they occupied the embassy [AFP]

A group of supporters of Alassane Ouattara, who is internationally recognised as Cote d'Ivoire's legitimate president after a disputed election runoff, has occupied the country's embassy in Paris, France's capital.

The group peacefully took over the embassy on Monday, to uphold Ouatarra's decision to name a new ambassador to France, the country's former coloniser, despite Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to step down from power.

French police were deployed around the embassy to protect Ouattara's supporters, while France's government works on approving the embassy's new employee appointees.

" />
Gbagbo defended his "legitimate" right to lead in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, fears of renewed fighting in Cote d'Ivoire are growing, following a threat from West African leaders to force Gbagbo out of power if he does not leave his post voluntarily.

The United Nations declared that Ouattara won the presidential election held nearly a month ago, but the incumbent refuses to concede defeat despite sanctions from the UN, the United States, European Union and the African Union.

Gbagbo has been president since 2000 and had already overstayed his mandate by five years when the long-delayed vote was finally held last October.

The election was intended to reunify the country, which was divided by the 2002-3 civil war into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south. Instead, it has refueled tensions that threaten to thrust the country back into conflict.

The UN has said at least 173 people have been killed in unrest over the vote. But the toll is believed by others to be much higher, while the UN mission has been blocked from investigating other reports, including the allegation of a mass grave.

Since the diputed election, human rights groups have expressed alarm about hundreds of arrests, and dozens of cases of torture and disappearances that they blame on security forces who have helped enforce Gbagbo's leadership.

Source: Agencies