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Terrorism & Security

As Ivory Coast's Gbagbo refuses to surrender, French rescue Japan ambassador

The French rescue was requested by the UN and Japanese after incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo's fighters broke into the ambassador's home.

By Correspondent / April 7, 2011

Soldiers loyal to Alassane Ouattara walk past deserted market stalls and closed business in an area of the Youpougon neighborhood adjacent to a checkpoint serving as a republican forces operating base, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Thursday, April 7.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

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French helicopters staged a dramatic rescue overnight Wednesday and into Thursday of the Japanese ambassador to Ivory Coast and his staff after troops loyal to former President Laurent Gbagbo stormed the Japanese compound.

Mr. Gbagbo himself remains holed up inside the presidential palace in Abidjan as troops loyal to President-elect Alassane Ouattara continue to lay siege to the compound in an attempt to capture the renegade leader and bring an end to the conflict in Ivory Coast. Mr. Gbagbo has refused to step down since losing the Nov. 28 presidential election, sparking the nation's second civil war in a decade and a humanitarian crisis.

RELATED: Five reasons the Ivory Coast election led to civil war

Gbagbo's presidential residence, where he is making his last stand inside a subterranean bunker, is not far from the Japanese ambassador's house, which was stormed on Wednesday by Gbagbo's forces. Reuters reports that the soldiers set up rocket launchers on the roof of the compound, according to a French military spokesman, as Japanese officials took shelter in a safe room.

French forces were called in just after midnight Wednesday at the request of Japan and the United Nations. The French helicopters were fired upon first, according to the spokesman, and one Japanese official was hurt when the helicopters returned fire and destroyed vehicles belonging to Gbagbo’s troops.

The New York Times reports that other governments, including India and Israel, also asked for help rescuing their diplomats after the episode. According to the Times, pro-Ouattara forces still surrounded Gbagbo’s compound Thursday after a failed attempt Wednesday to capture him. Ouattara has insisted on taking the former president alive so he can face trial.

The Guardian reports that Gbagbo accused the French of launching an “assassination plot” against him after the attacks by Ouattara's forces Wednesday. French officials had predicted before the attack that he would step down within hours.

But as the attempts to end the violent standoff continue, the Monitor reports that capturing Gbagbo won’t necessarily bring an end to the bloodshed in Ivory Coast. It’s not clear that youth militias and mercenaries currently fighting for Gbagbo would immediately lay down arms if he surrendered. The professionalism of the country’s army, which defected to Ouattara en masse, is in question, as is Ouattara’s control of it. And it is unclear if Ouattara has what it takes to unite the deeply divided country, reports the Monitor.

An old colleague of [Ouattara's], who asked not to be named, described the economist as a technocrat, not a politician with the rhetorical chops to create a nation out of two warring halves.

The only person who can help him accomplish that, many fear, may be Gbagbo.

And negotiating Gbagbo’s exit is complicated by the fact that the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court yesterday issued a statement saying he may request authorization to open a full investigation into crimes committed recently in Ivory Coast, reports Foreign Policy. Opening Gbagbo up to indictment will mean he will not want to take refuge in any country that recognizes the court, and could no longer be offered amnesty as an incentive for surrendering.

The point is this: the crisis in the Ivory Coast is at an unbelievably delicate moment. The country is polarized. If Gbagbo is not allowed a dignified exit – much as it seems unfair – the crisis runs a serious risk of getting worse. Militias armed in favor of one side or the other – or in some cases loyal to no one in particular – can't be accomodated but neither can they be forgotten. Once the immediate political crisis ends, social cohesion will be Ouattara's biggest challenge as president. He's going to have to ensure that divided Ivorians can live with one another again.

RELATED: Five reasons the Ivory Coast election led to civil war

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