Ivory Coast fighting thwarts evacuation of diplomats

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Clashes with Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo's troops forced French troops to abort an evacuation of diplomatic personnel from Abidjan Saturday, as pleas mounted for humanitarian aid.

The evacuation began at around 3:00 am (0300 GMT) but the head of the country's mission decided to cancel the operation because "security conditions were insufficient," a spokesman for French forces in Ivory Coast, Colonel Thierry Burkhard, told AFP.

French forces drew fire during the operation and French helicopters destroyed an armoured vehicle of pro-Gbagbo forces in Abidjan's diplomatic quarter, Burkhard said.

He added the evacuation had been requested by the "government of an allied country" which he did not identify for security reasons.

The United Nations warned earlier that Gbagbo's forces had gained ground in Abidjan under cover of a lull in fighting with troops backing his rival Alassane Ouattara, recognised by the UN as president of the west African country.

UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy warned that troops fighting for Gbagbo still had tanks and other heavy weapons and had made advances in the city.

Gbagbo forces were just one kilometre (half-a-mile) from Ouattara's hotel headquarters, Le Roy told reporters after a UN Security Council briefing on the crisis.

"They clearly used the lull of Tuesday as a trick to reinforce their position," Le Roy added, referring to a lull in the fighting after three Gbagbo generals asked for talks but Gbagbo then refused to surrender.

Still, there were signs that the situation in Abidjan was stabilising after days of fighting.

The streets were calm and residents said they had not heard shooting near Gbagbo's residence or the presidential palace.

Commercial flights resumed from the airport in Abidjan and an Air France flight had arrived, a source with French military forces in the country told AFP.

And UN and French forces were deployed in Abidjan's port, a day after the European Union lifted its sanctions on the port and the authority that oversees Ivory Coast's vital cocoa industry.

But a UN aid official said that many areas of Abidjan were still in desperate need of aid and called for humanitarian corridors to be set up to deliver help.

"The situation is tragic in certain neighbourhoods" of Abidjan, Carlos Geha, the representative of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Ivory Coast, told AFP.

He said "humanitarian corridors" were needed to ensure the delivery of aid.

"It is not medicine or material aid that is missing but the means to get them to those who need them," he said.

Meanwhile Ouattara was under increasing pressure over allegations that his forces committed atrocities in the west of the country as they advanced on Abidjan late last month.

Human Rights Watch said they killed or raped hundreds of people and burned villages, citing new evidence of summary killings of Gbagbo supporters in the far west.

UN investigators said Friday they had found 118 bodies in the past 24 hours.

Several hundred people were reportedly massacred in the western town of Duekoue last week, with forces loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara blaming each other and the International Criminal Court in The Hague announcing a formal probe.

"To understand the tragic events in Ivory Coast, a line cannot be drawn between north and south, or supporters of Gbagbo and Ouattara," said Daniel Bekele, HRW's Africa director.

"Unfortunately, there are those on both sides who have shown little regard for the dignity of human life."

Though Ouattara's forces advanced swiftly on Abidjan, the country's economic capital, after breaking a stand-off since Gbagbo refused to cede power after elections in November, they have been unable to winkle him out of a bunker underneath his residence in the city.

On Thursday Ouattara announced the blockade of Gbagbo's residence and called on his troops to restore order in Abidjan, where roaming militia have been engaged in looting and random attacks.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organisation warned of the threat of mass outbreaks of disease, including a resurgence of a deadly cholera outbreak in Abidjan.

© 2011 AFP

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