Sunday, April 03, 2011

French Military Takes Control of Key Ivory Coast Airport

French take control of key Ivory Coast airport

(CNN) -- French peacekeepers in war-torn Ivory Coast took control of the airport in the main city late Saturday night, the French Ministry of Defense said Sunday, as a battle for Abijdan seemed to be looming.

An additional 300 French troops joined the United Nations peacekeeping mission overnight, the ministry added. There were about 7,500 troops already in the country under the U.N. mandate.

United Nations helicopters patrolled the skies over the city as a tense calm reigned Sunday morning, a local resident told CNN.

The man, whom CNN is not naming to protect his safety, said he had been to church as usual, where another parishioner said he had seen dead bodies by the road on his way to the congregation.

The uneasy peace came in the wake of claims of a massacre as fighters backing internationally recognized President Alassane Ouattara battle forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to leave office.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded Sunday that Gbagbo step aside immediately.

"Gbagbo is pushing Cote d'Ivoire into lawlessness," she said, using the French name for the country. "He must leave now so the conflict may end."

She also called "on the forces of President Ouattara to respect the rules of war and stop attacks on civilians."

The International Committee of the Red Cross said 800 people were shot to death in the western cocoa-producing town of Duekoue. A United Nations official put the death toll so far at 330.

The massacre occurred between Monday and Wednesday as Ouattara's Republican Forces led an offensive through the country to Abidjan, said Guillaume Ngefa, the deputy human rights director at the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast.

He blamed 220 deaths on forces loyal to Ouattara. Ngefa said pro-Gbagbo forces killed 100 people.

"We have evidence, we have pictures. This was retaliation," he said, referring to Ouattara's forces.

The Ouattara camp said it "firmly rejects such accusations and denies any involvement by the Republican Forces of Cote d'Ivoire in possible abuses."

"The government wishes to establish that the situation is quite the opposite," it said. "Forces loyal to former President Laurent Gbagbo, and its affiliated mercenaries and militias that have engaged in countless atrocities in western Cote d'Ivoire, during their flight before the advance of Republican Forces of Cote d'Ivoire."

Ngefa said so far, 320 bodies have been identified and the actual number could be much higher. He said the dead included civilians as well as mercenaries.

Before the Duekoue killings, human right monitors documented 462 deaths in the Ivory Coast conflict, which would make the Duekoue massacre the single bloodiest incident yet.

The International Committee of the Red Cross sent a team to Duekoue on Thursday and said most of the victims were civilians, said spokesman Kelnor Panglungtshang in Abidjan.

"They saw the bodies on the streets," he told CNN. "There were so many."

Ngefa said a contingent of U.N. peacekeepers is stationed in Duekoue and is patrolling the town.

The massacre illustrated the bloody nature of Ivory Coast's conflict, now in its fifth month. The violence erupted after a disputed November election led Gbagbo and Ouattara to both claim the presidency.

The international community recognized Ouattara as the legitimate winner but Gbagbo refused to cede power and violence engulfed the nation, escalating this week with a major offensive launched by Ouattara's Republican Forces.

A spokesman for Ouattara said Saturday the other side has committed atrocities, is losing its top generals to defections and is looking for "cannon fodder" for its last stand.

The claims by Ouattara spokesman Patrick Achi could not be independently verified by CNN.

Fierce fighting has erupted for control of Abidjan, Ivory Coast's largest city. Gbagbo's forces were thought to be on the brink of defeat but regained key areas Saturday.

They said they retook control of Ivory Coast's all-powerful state-run television network that has been the embattled president's voice in his standoff with Ouattara.

Outtara's side denied Gbagbo was in control of state television, claiming he was actually broadcasting from a satellite truck.

Ouattara forces control the "entire national territory" and Abidjan, Achi said. Gbagbo's generals have abandoned "this crazy undertaking" and joined Ouattara's army or are refugees, the spokesman added.

An American teacher, holed up in her Abidjan apartment, told CNN she was frightened and was trying desperately to get help from U.S. or French officials to help evacuate her.

She said she last went to school Thursday and by that afternoon, she could hear the rattle of gunfire and the boom of explosions everywhere. She, too, was not identified for security reasons.

"I am very scared," she said, "because the shelling is intense."

A U.N. peacekeeping patrol came under attack from Gbagbo's forces Saturday in an Abidjan suburb, a U.N. statement said. In the exchange of fire, five members of Gbagbo's forces were shot, the statement said.

Gbagbo adviser Abdon Bayeto blamed the United Nations and global leaders -- including France and the United States -- for Ivory Coast's bloodshed by recognizing Ouattara as the legitimate president.

Ouattara knows he lost the election, Bayeto told CNN, adding that Gbagbo is a true democrat.

"For 30 years there was no trouble in the country," he said. "We are going to be victorious."

Gbagbo's whereabouts were unknown. He has not recently appeared in public and the French ambassador said his residence was empty.

Some 1,400 foreigners, including 500 French citizens, have sought refuge at a French military camp, an unnamed spokeswoman for the French Defense Ministry said Saturday.

The violence has also displaced one million of Abidjan's four million people.

CNN's Claudia Dominguez, Carey Bodenheimer, Elise Labott, Karen Smith and Moni Basu contributed to this report.

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