Côte d'Ivoire

France rescues Japan's ambassador from Abidjan

Reuters/Luc Gnago

Heavy weapons fire continues in Côte d'Ivoire's main city of Abidjan on Thursday as forces loyal to the internationally-recognised president Alassane Ouattara fought to take control of the presidential palace where strongman Laurent Gbagbo has retreated to a bunker. Gunfire was heard around the presidential palace and the residence of Gbagbo who refuses to step down after disputed elections in November.

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Ouattara's forces tried to enter the building on Wednesday to remove him but were forced to pull back after clashes with Gbagbo's fighters. Japan's ambassador was rescued overnight by French helicopters after his home was surrounded by Ouattara's Republican Forces army which was using the building as a launching point for rockets and cannon.

The ambassador and several aides were evacuated and taken to a French military camp at Port-Bouet, south of Abidjan.

French foreign minister Alain Juppé said that Israel has also asked French forces to extract its diplomats from the conflict-torn city.

France says Gbagbo has less than 1,000 men in the main city of Abidjan including around 200 in the residence where he is holed up. Juppé has said the former president's departure is inevitable although it is impossible to say if it was a matter of hours or days.

Meanwhile, there is growing concern over claims of massacres last week when Ouattara's army mounted a lightening offensive into areas held by Gbagbo's forces, capturing several towns on the way to the main city.

The United Nations says several hundred people were killed in the western town of Duekoue.

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has announced that he was collecting information on the allegations and planned a formal investigation.

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