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Ivory Coast fighting thwarts evacuation of diplomats

ABIDJAN, Apr 9 – The French army aborted an evacuation of diplomatic personnel from Ivory Coast\’s main city Abidjan Saturday after clashes with forces loyal to strongman Laurent Gbagbo, a spokesman said.

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," 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.

Burkhard repeated that artillery fire was aimed at the French ambassador\’s residence Friday from positions held by pro-Gbagbo forces.

A spokesman for Gbagbo had earlier denied a French embassy statement that the residence had been targeted by two mortars and a rocket.

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

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

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

"The reports that the UN human rights team in Cote d’Ivoire are sending back are utterly horrifying," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement.

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."

Ouattara promised in a televised address Thursday that the perpetrators of the crimes would be punished.

Though his 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.

UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said Friday that Gbagbo\’s troops still had tanks and other heavy weapons and had made advances in Abidjan.

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

"They have still many heavy weapons in hand" including tanks, M-21 rocket launchers, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and armoured personnel carriers, Le Roy said.

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.

Addressing Ivorians for the first time since the post-election crisis came to a head, Ouattara appealed for national reconciliation and a resumption of economic activity in the world\’s leading cocoa producer.

The European Union responded Friday by lifting its sanctions on two key ports in Ivory Coast and the authority that oversees its vital cocoa industry.

The World Food Programme and UN relief agencies appealed for humanitarian corridors in the country to ensure safe access to fleeing civilians and to facilitate aid deliveries from Liberia and Ghana.

UN and French forces on Friday evacuated ambassadors and diplomats from the Indian, South Korean, South African and Israeli embassies in Ivory Coast, UN officials said. They said the German, US and Brazilian embassies were among those awaiting UN help.

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.

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