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Japanese envoy rescued after Abidjan firefight

ABIDJAN, Apr 7 – French helicopters rescued Japan\’s ambassador to Ivory Coast overnight after he was besieged by mercenaries during fierce battles involving fighters loyal to would be president Alassane Ouattara.

Battles erupted between French forces and supporters of incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo during the operation, after forces loyal to Ouattara, the internationally recognised president, failed to storm Gbagbo\’s residence.

Ambassador Yoshifumi Okamura\’s residence was surrounded while Ouattara\’s fighters used the building as a launching point for rockets and cannon, forcing the ambassador and a dozen people to hide behind a bulletproof door.

Okamura and his aides were eventually evacuated by French helicopters and taken to a French military camp at Port-Bouet", south of Abidjan, the French embassy said.

"Thanks to help by the French military and the United Nations, the ambassador was rescued with seven others," an official at the foreign ministry in Tokyo told AFP.

The rescue followed a day of heavy fighting at Gbagbo\’s residence in Abidjan where he is holed up, refusing to surrender and cede power to Ouattara.

"There has been a pause in the fighting" between Gbagbo\’s troops and Ouattara\’s Republican Forces Army, a resident told AFP after "several hours of sustained heavy weapons fire.

"The Republican Forces arrived up to 150 metres (164 yards) from the gate. They had to pull back," he added.

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The offensive launched by the Ouattara\’s troops "met with strong resistance from Gbagbo\’s last loyal men," a French government source told AFP.

"There are still some mortars and tanks in the presidential compound, the offensive was suspended for a few hours," the source said.

Ouattara\’s camp earlier said they were going to storm the bunker and forcibly remove Gbagbo to end his decade-long rule of the world\’s number one cocoa producer after losing November elections.

"We are going to take Laurent Gbagbo out of his hole and hand him over to the president of the republic," said Sidiki Konate, spokesman for the pro-Ouattara forces.

"We are going to his residence to fetch him and put an end to this comedy… This charade must end because the country is collapsing," he said.

Okamura, as well as diplomats from India and Israel and 20 journalists were trapped in a hotel in central Abidjan, seeking US help to escape the under-fire neighbourhood.

The embassy is located near Gbagbo\’s residence and not far from the French embassy which was shot at.

French Licorne forces moved at the request of Japan and the United Nations.

In France a government source said Ouattara forces had launched a final assault after negotiations to persuade Gbagbo to give up power failed.

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"Gbagbo was still refusing to sign a document recognising Ouattara\’s victory … and Ouattara concluded that he was not being honest," the source said.

"He therefore decided to intervene militarily to try to resolve the problem, to capture Gbagbo alive."

Gbagbo\’s camp condemned the move as an "assassination attempt".

UN peacekeeping department spokesman Nick Birnback told AFP Gbagbo remained in contact with international representatives.

"Discussions continue with the UN using its good offices to the fullest extent possible," he said.

After calling for a ceasefire and retreating to the bunker Tuesday with his wife Simone and a few others, Gbagbo insisted in a radio interview late Tuesday he would not accept he had lost the vote.

"I do not recognise the victory of Ouattara… Why would you want me to sign this?" Gbagbo told France\’s LCI news channel, referring to the document in which France and the United Nations urge him to quit.

Gbagbo also said that while he did not regard himself as a "martyr", he was prepared to die. "If death comes, it comes," he said.

Concern grew at claims of massacres over the past week when Ouattara\’s army mounted a lightning offensive into areas held by Gbagbo forces, capturing several towns on the way to the main city, Abidjan.

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The United Nations said it believed "several hundred civilians" were killed in the western town of Duekoue and one mass grave had almost 200 bodies.

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, announced he was collecting information on the allegations and planned a formal investigation.

Several hundred people have been killed in violence linked to the months-long presidential standoff, while up to a million had fled their homes to escape clashes, according to UN agencies.

The European Union imposed new sanctions on Gbagbo, banning the purchase of bonds from his "illegitimate government".

Gbagbo was elected in 2000 and postponed polls due in 2005 several times before allowing them to go ahead last year, only to reject the result issued by the election authority and backed by the United Nations.

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