UN forces 'corral Ivorian leader's defenders'

Peacekeepers have surrounded Laurent Gbagbo forces in a "limited area", says French defence minister.

    The UN, which has 8,000 troops in  Cote d'Ivoire, has been fighting alongside the French against Gbagbo's forces[AFP]

    UN peacekeepers have surrounded the last defenders of Laurent Gbagbo, Cote d'Ivoire's incumbent president, in a "limited area", the French defence minister has said.

    "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," Gerard Longuet told the French senate on Thursday.

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    Earlier, French forces hit 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 after Gbagbo soldiers broke into the residence, where ambassador Yoshifumi Okamura and seven of his staff had taken shelter inside a safe room, Thierry Burkhard, a French armed forces spokesman said.

    The French action came as forces loyal to president-elect Alassane Ouattara laid siege to Gbagbo's own residence after an attempt to extract him from his bunker on Wednesday met with fierce resistance.

    The resistance raised doubts on whether Gbagbo, who lost the presidential election and has scoffed at calls to quit, will leave power soon after France said on Wednesday that he had only hours to go.

    A spokesman for Ouattara's forces, Yves Doumbia, said they had breached the gates of the president's compound when they were repelled by heavy arms fire.

    "We retreated but we are preparing for a second assault," Doumbia said.

    Issiaka Konate, Ouattara's spokesman in London, told Al Jazeera that the troops had been called back and were being reorganised.

    "There were a lot of fighters within the compound [of Gbagbo] ... and a lot of heavy weapons ... This is not going to be an easy job," he said.

    Talks continuing

    The United Nations, which has 8,000 peacekeepers in the west African country, says at least 400 people have been killed in fighting related to last November's disputed presidential runoff which led to the formation of two parallel governments - one led by Gbagbo and the other by Ouattara.

    International charities have told of massacres in the country's west where at least 1,000 people have been killed in the past couple of weeks. The claims cannot be independently verified.

    The UN, which organised the disputed election, recognised Ouattara as the winner with 54 per cent of the vote - Gbagbo polled 45 per cent - and has also been recognised by the African Union and ECOWAS, the economic bloc in west Africa.

    A UN spokesman in New York said talks with Gbagbo's camp were continuing, but it was not clear if they would lead anywhere, especially as Gbagbo himself told French radio he had no intention of stepping down.

    Gbagbo, who had put off elections several times before November's vote, has used state television to lambaste foreign forces, mainly France, which he says is backing Ouattara to protect its economic interests in the country.

    UN helicopters fighting alongside French troops bombarded Gbagbo's heavy weapons stockpiles earlier this week, including those near his residence - but those attacks ended on Tuesday.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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