French rescue Japanese in daring Ivory Coast raid

AP News
|
Posted: Apr 07, 2011 12:03 PM
French rescue Japanese in daring Ivory Coast raid

French forces rappelled in the dark from a hovering chopper to rescue Japan's ambassador to the Ivory Coast and seven of his colleagues after the envoy's home was taken over by armed mercenaries in the embattled West African nation.

Yoshifumi Okamura and the other Japanese diplomats were trapped Wednesday when the residence in Abidjan's embassy district came under attack and was occupied as fighting between supporters and opponents of strongman Laurent Gbagbo intensified across the city.

"Mercenaries took over my residence, but in the end I was saved by French troops," Okamura said in a video released Thursday by the French military.

The video of the hourlong raid shows French forces in night-vision goggles dropping one-by-one into the compound, which had been taken over earlier Wednesday by unidentified armed men. Okamura and the other diplomats had barricaded themselves in the residence's safe room.

"A group of mercenaries, armed men, stormed into the residence of the Japanese ambassador in Abidjan and first started looting the property and then set up mortars and RPGs on the roof of this residence," said French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard.

One Japanese diplomat was wounded during the mercenaries' assault on the compound, Burkhard said. After seeking refuge in the safe room, the trapped diplomats managed to contact authorities in Tokyo, who then alerted the U.N. secretary-general.

Three French helicopters flew into action. As heavy arms fire boomed out across Abidjan, and with the mercenaries firing mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at neighboring diplomatic residences, the French warriors staged a lightning evacuation operation.

The video also shows the French aircraft landing in a field and pick up a man who appears to be the ambassador.

In the fighting, the French forces destroyed at least one armored vehicle and two pickup trucks equipped with heavy machine guns, Burkhard said.

Forces allied with Ivory Coast's internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara have stormed the gates of Laurent Gbagbo's home but are fearful of killing the entrenched leader who has refused to recognize the results of a November election.

Israel has also sought help from France's 1,600-strong Licorne force in Ivory Coast to protect its diplomats in the violence-torn city, of Abidjan, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told lawmakers Thursday.

Speaking at the same hearing, Defense Minister Gerard Longuet estimated that forces loyal to Gbagbo number now about 1,000, including 200 barricaded inside the presidential residence, Ouattara has 2,000 armed supporters, while the U.N. has 10,500 in the country including 2,500 in Abidjan, he said.

He added that the mercenaries behind the assault on the Japanese embassy were "undoubtedly" non-Ivorian citizens.

France has evacuated 2,430 foreigners, including French citizens and those of other countries, from the fighting in Abidjan.

___

Cecile Brisson and Camille Rustici in Paris contributed to this report.