Gbagbo loyalists attack Ouattara headquarters
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Pro-Gbagbo forces launched an attack on the headquarters of the internationally recognised president, Alassane Ouattara, Saturday. French authorities said fighters also attacked their embassy in Abidjan, provoking counter-strikes.
AFP - Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo's forces attacked the headquarters of his rival, UN-recognised president Alassane Ouattara, on Saturday in a major escalation of the battle for control of the country.
A UN spokesman and witnesses told AFP the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, where Ouattara has been holed up since disputed November elections, came under attack from about 5:00 pm local time (1700 GMT).
It was the first time since the start of the west African nation's political crisis that the hotel had come under direct attack.
"The FDS (pro-Gbagbo Defence and Security Forces) are attacking us and we are trying to push them back," one fighter with the pro-Ouattara forces said.
"The firing is very very close. Snipers fired bursts from Kalashnikovs. The pro-Gbagbos are attacking us on all fronts," a hotel resident said.
A spokesman for the UN mission in Ivory Coast (UNOCI), Hamadoun Toure, said UN peacekeepers had responded after the hotel had come under mortar fire from Gbagbo's forces.
"The Golf Hotel was attacked with mortars," Toure said, adding that the attack had come from south of Abidjan's lagoon and the presidential residence.
"In conformity with our mandate to protect the Golf Hotel where president Ouattara and his team are, the peacekeepers responded by targeting the origin of the firing coming from the other side of the lagoon. We intentionally avoided the residence of president Gbagbo."
The attack broke the calm of what had been a relatively quiet day in Abidjan, where Ouattara's forces have blockaded Gbagbo inside the presidential residence.
The United Nations had warned on Friday that Gbagbo's forces had gained ground in the commercial capital under cover of a lull in fighting.
UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said that troops fighting for Gbagbo still had tanks and other heavy weapons and had made advances in the city.
Clashes with Gbagbo's troops had also forced French soldiers to abort an evacuation of diplomatic personnel from Abidjan Saturday.
The evacuation began at around 3:00 am (0300 GMT) but the head of the country's mission decided to cancel the operation because of security concerns, Colonel Thierry Burkhard of the French forces in Ivory Coast 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.
The evacuation had been requested by the "government of an allied country", he added, which he did not identify for security reasons.
A UN aid official said 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.
"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 had committed atrocities in the west of the country as they advanced on Abidjan late last month.
Human Rights Watch said they had 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.
Last week Ouattara's forces swept in to Abidjan ending a stand-off that has lasted since the November presidential election in which Gbagbo refused to concede defeat.
But they have been unable to get 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 have warned of the threat of mass outbreaks of disease, including a resurgence of a deadly cholera outbreak in Abidjan.
Also Saturday, 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.