French Troops Rescue Japanese Diplomats as Ivory Coast Fighting Continues

French commandos airlifted eight people from the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Ivory Coast’s main city, Abidjan, late yesterday, after it was seized and looted by militiamen loyal to former leader Laurent Gbagbo, the French Defense Ministry said.

Gbagbo’s forces had set up mortars and rockets on the roof of the house and were firing on other homes in the neighborhood, Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman, told reporters in Paris. The fighters targeted the helicopters when they first approached at about 11 p.m. They fled as commandos dropped onto the roof of the house, he added.

“The minute the commandos showed up, they preferred to slip away,” Burkhard said.

The operation came as forces loyal to Ivory Coast’s president-elect, Alassane Ouattara, besieged Gbagbo’s residence. United Nations peacekeepers have also “encircled the last defenders of former president Laurent Gbagbo,” French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said today in parliament.

Pro-Ouattara Republican Forces have swept through southern Ivory Coast in the past month, beginning on March 31 an assault on Abidjan, where residents said food and water are in short supply after a week of fighting.

The crisis in the world’s top cocoa producer was triggered by Gbagbo’s refusal to accept his loss in elections on Nov. 28 to Ouattara, who is recognized by the international community as the winner. The former leader has retreated to a bunker in his house and has rejected offers to end the standoff peacefully.

French Intervention

Five French helicopters participated in yesterday’s rescue mission, destroying an armored vehicle and two pickup trucks after they were fired on as they approached, Burkhard said.

The mission was the second major French military operation in a week in its former West African colony. French and UN helicopters attacked Gbagbo’s military installations in Abidjan on April 4, an operation that led a number of Gbagbo’s commanders to surrender.

Israel has also requested French military assistance in evacuating its diplomats, Agence France-Presse reported, citing Alain Juppe, France’s foreign minister.

Legality

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called for an investigation of the legality of French and United Nations military intervention in Ivory Coast over the past week.

“Moscow is convinced that the Africans should solve their problems themselves without outside intervention,” according to a statement posted on the ministry’s website today.

Grocery stores in Abidjan are running short of food, while hundreds of foreigners sheltering at a French military base on the outskirts of the city have been running out of water supplies, Jan Pieter Ohler, a Dutch diplomat, said in a phone interview.

About 2,400 foreigners are at the base, of which a third are French, a third Lebanese and a third from other countries, Burkhard said. About 1,100 people have already been flown out of country.

Cocoa for May delivery fell $7, or 0.1 percent, to $2,992, as of 4:34 p.m. in London. The continuing crisis threatens the health of banks in West Africa that hold Ivory Coast securities and that have exposure to the country’s economy, the largest in the West African Monetary Union, Fitch Ratings Ltd. said yesterday.

Ivory Coast’s defaulted 2032 Eurobond rose 5.2 percent to 54.3 cents, its highest level since Ouattara was named the vote winner on Dec. 2

To contact the reporters on this story: Gregory Viscusi in Paris at gviscusi@bloomberg.net; Jason McLure in Accra at 797 or jmclure@bloomberg.net; Franz Wild in Johannesburg at fwild@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin at asguazzin@bloomberg.net; Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net; James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net.

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