Japanese envoy to Ivory Coast rescued amid battles

Heavy weapons fire erupted after Japan`s ambassador was rescued overnight from fierce battles involving fighters for would-be president Alassane Ouattara.

Last Updated: Apr 07, 2011, 19:32 PM IST

Abidjan: Heavy weapons fire
erupted on Thursday after Japan`s ambassador was rescued
overnight from fierce battles involving fighters for would-be
president Alassane Ouattara.

Gunfire was heard around the presidential palace and
the residence of strongman Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to
cede power to his rival after disputed elections in November.

France said Gbagbo had "less than 1,000 men" in the
main city Abidjan, including around 200 at his residence,
where he was holed up.

Forces for Ouattara, the internationally recognised
president, tried to enter the residence yesterday to remove
him but failed and had to pull back after clashes.

However the home of Japanese ambassador Yoshifumi
Okamura was surrounded as Ouattara`s fighters used the
building as a launching point for rockets and cannon, forcing
the ambassador and a dozen people to hide behind a bulletproof
door.

Okamura and his aides were eventually evacuated by
French helicopters and taken to a French military camp at
Port-Bouet, south of Abidjan, the French embassy said.

"Thanks to help by the French military and the United
Nations, the ambassador was rescued with seven others," an
official at the foreign ministry in Tokyo told AFP.

Israel has also asked French forces to extract its
diplomats from the conflict-torn city, French Foreign Minister
Alain Juppe said today.

Juppe said Gbagbo`s departure was inevitable, although
he could not say if it was a matter of hours or days.

"Today, at the moment, former president Gbagbo`s
forces are reportedly a bit less than 1,000, including 200 at
his residence," French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said
separately.

A resident near Gbagbo`s residence told AFP Ouattara`s
Republican Forces army had to pull back from the compound
yesterday after several hours of sustained heavy weapons fire.

"The Republican Forces arrived up to 150 metres from
the gate. They had to pull back," he added.

The offensive launched by the Ouattara`s troops "met
with strong resistance from Gbagbo`s last loyal men", a French
government source told AFP.

"There are still some mortars and tanks in the
presidential compound, the offensive was suspended for a few
hours," the source said.

Ouattara`s camp earlier said they were going to storm
the bunker and forcibly remove Gbagbo to end his decade-long
rule of the world`s number one cocoa producer after losing
November elections.

PTI