Israel asks French to help secure Ivory Coast staff

Israeli embassy located in area of intense fighting; Foreign Ministry: Embassy not target in war between presidential claimants.

Ivory Coast Forces 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ivory Coast Forces 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel asked the French for assistance in moving four diplomats from the embassy in Abidjan to a safer part of the city, the Foreign Ministry confirmed on Thursday.
The embassy in Abidjan is located in an area of intense fighting, and Israel contacted the French earlier this week for assistance in moving them to one of three safe areas in the city.
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The ministry stressed that there was no intention to evacuate diplomats from the country.
A ministry spokesman said that the Israeli embassy was by no means a target, but that the whole area right now is not a “comfortable place” to be in.
The French assisted in the evacuation of Japanese diplomats in a similar situation.
In addition to the diplomats, some 18 other Israelis are in the country, and have chosen to remain. They have also been advised to move to the three safe areas in the city.
Fifty-four Israelis – most of them businessmen – have left in recent weeks as the country slid into chaos.
French forces destroyed military vehicles belonging to troops loyal to Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo during a helicopter mission that rescued Japan’s ambassador to the West African country on Thursday.
The French, who have already joined helicopter raids to destroy Gbagbo’s heavy weapons, went in after Gbagbo soldiers broke into the residence, where ambassador Yoshifumi Okamura, along with seven of his staff, had taken shelter inside a safe room, French armed forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard said.
The rescue came as forces loyal to presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara laid siege to Gbagbo’s own residence nearby, after an attempt to pluck him from his bunker on Wednesday was met with fierce resistance.
Fighting continued in Abidjan as Ouattara’s forces tried to unseat Gbagbo – who has refused to cede power since losing a November election to Ouattara – according to UN-certified results.
Sporadic explosions broke the silence of one of the quieter nights since Ouattara’s soldiers arrived in the economic capital a week ago, a Reuters witness said.
Burkhard said pro-Gbagbo loyalists had set up rocket launchers on the roof of the Japanese embassy.
“The Japanese authorities asked the United Nations to act and UNOCI [The UN mission in Ivory Coast] asked Licorne [French troops] as it has the means to evacuate,” he said.
The French forces, who were shot at, used a helicopter to airlift the Japanese officials to safety. “The French forces fired back in self-defense, destroying at least one armored vehicle and two pick-up trucks.”
No soldiers were injured, but one of the Japanese officials was hurt.
The former colonial power in Ivory Coast, France has taken a leading role in talks to persuade Gbagbo to hand over to Ouattara and end the standoff over the contested election in November.
A UN spokesman in New York said negotiations with Gbagbo’s camp were continuing, but it was not clear if they would lead anywhere – especially since Gbagbo told French radio he had no intention of stepping down.
Helicopters commanded by the UN peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast bombarded Gbagbo’s heavy weapons stockpiles earlier this week, including those near his residence – but those attacks ended on Tuesday.
Gbagbo has ruled the Ivory Coast since 2000, and blames Paris for supporting the north of the country in the civil war of 2002-03.
Rebels from that war now make up the bulk of Ouattara’s force.
Last year’s long-delayed election in the world’s top cocoa-producing nation was meant to draw a line under the civil war – but Gbagbo’s refusal to give up power has plunged the country into violence that has killed more than 1,500 people.