ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – French helicopters on an evacuation mission were fired upon by forces supporting the country's strongman as they tried to retain power in Ivory Coast's largest city, a military spokesman said Saturday.
No French soldiers were injured in the attack late Friday, but French forces fired back destroying one armored vehicle, Cmdr. Frederic Daguillon said. The mission to evacuate diplomats from an embassy was aborted, he said.
The attack came the same night that France's embassy was hit by two mortars and a rocket fired by forces for Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power or emerge from a bunker at his residence.
U.N. peacekeeping director Alain Le Roy said Friday that Gbagbo and his military have used negotiations with the U.N. this week as a ploy to consolidate power and reinforce his position. He said that an offer by Gbagbo's top three generals to surrender was evidently a "trick" to buy time.
Reports that Gbagbo and his top military men were negotiating a surrender had raised expectations Tuesday that the four-month political standoff in the western African nation was nearing an end.
But Gbagbo later strongly denied that he would give up, and insisted that the presidency was rightfully his.
In power for a decade, Gbagbo refuses to step aside even though the U.N. has ruled that he lost the November presidential election to his political rival Alassane Ouattara.
After four months of diplomacy, Ouattara gave the go-ahead for a military intervention led by fighters from a former rebel group. Forces first attempted to bomb Gbagbo out. When that failed, they tried a ground assault on the bunker.
Ouattara's forces have stopped short of trying to kill the entrenched leader, a move that could stoke the rage of his supporters. Some 46 percent of Ivorians voted for Gbagbo.
Ouattara said the goal is to wait for Gbagbo to run out of food and water.
On Friday, internationally recognized president Ouattara imposed a blockade around Gbagbo's presidential residence, and said he'll focus on normalizing life in the corpse-strewn, terrorized city. He said his troops will work to secure Abidjan, where people have hidden inside their homes this week amid heavy fighting between troops loyal to Ouattara and those who are with Gbagbo.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet estimates that Gbagbo has some 1,000 troops, compared to the 2,000-strong force that has been fighting to install Ouattara.
As the military standoff dragged on in Abidjan, there are new concerns about tensions erupting into deadly violence in the country's west. The U.N. said Friday more than 100 bodies have been found in the last 24 hours, and some of the victims had been burned alive.
"The reports that the U.N. human rights team in Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) are sending back are utterly horrifying," U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said in a statement Friday. "They are finding more bodies every day."
The U.N. human rights chief condemned the series of extremely vicious attacks against civilians and cautioned that those atrocities may amount to crimes against humanity.
The U.N. said peacekeepers and human rights officials discovered about 60 bodies in the western town of Guiglo. The U.N. human rights agency said another 40 corpses were found lying the street in Blolequin, and many of them had been shot. Fifteen other bodies were found in Duekoue, where violence already has left at least 229 dead in recent weeks.
Pillay welcomed a call by Ouattara on national TV Thursday for all Ivorians to refrain from committing crimes or acts of vengeance, and said those who didn't would be punished.
"Even before the results of the disputed presidential elections had been announced in December, I had warned both candidates that they may be held accountable for their supporters' acts of violence," Pillay said.
The postelection violence has left hundreds dead and has forced up to 1 million people to flee.
Military vehicles had to negotiate around bodies lying in the streets of Abidjan Friday. An untold number of fighters and civilians have been killed in the city this past week.
The International Rescue Committee is warning that chaos is permeating this West African nation once split in two by a 2002-2003 civil war, citing an "explosive mix of political, economic and ethnic tension."
"We're concerned that looting, hostility, bloodshed, reprisal killings and sexual assaults will escalate in communities across the country," said Louis Falcy, the IRC's country director in Ivory Coast.