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Gbagbo forces fire on helicopters

Forces supporting Ivory Coast's entrenched strongman have broken through the security perimeter imposed around the presidential compound, firing on French helicopters in an advance that appeared to breathe new life into Laurent Gbagbo's camp.

Residents in the Cocody district of Abidjan reported two hours of explosions and heavy arms fire before sunrise on Saturday, while French forces said that helicopters attempting to evacuate diplomats from a residence near the presidential compound were hit by machine gun fire.

No French soldiers were injured in the attack by pro-Gbagbo forces, but the helicopters fired back destroying one armoured vehicle, said Commander Frederic Daguillon, the French forces spokesman.

At the Golf Hotel, only a few miles from the presidential residence, soldiers loyal to internationally-recognised president Alassane Ouattara scrambled to defend the compound, sending out patrols and reporting heavy fighting.

"(Pro-Gbagbo) forces tried to attack the Golf," Felicien Sekongo, a spokesman for Ouattara's Republican forces said. "They pushed into Cocody and Plateau districts but have been stopped and pushed back."

In power for a decade, Gbagbo refuses to step aside even though the United Nations (UN) has ruled that he lost the November presidential election to his political rival Mr Ouattara. For the last four months, Mr Ouattara has been living out of the Golf Hotel, protected by UN forces.

With fighting ongoing, it was difficult late on Saturday to determine whether Gbagbo's soldiers had succeeded in gaining ground or whether the counter attack had failed to turn the tables.

Heavily armed and uniformed soldiers loyal to Gbagbo guarded the state television antenna in the central plateau district. The station, which has been denounced by the UN for broadcasting "lies" and "propaganda" went black when Ouattara's forces entered Abidjan, but it came back on air on Friday afternoon. As long as it stays on air, Gbagbo retains a powerful tool to rally his supporters and keep his resistance alive.

Also on Saturday, the UN evacuated 17 British citizens from the British High Commissioner's residence, only steps from Gbagbo's compound. The diplomatic residence, like many others in the neighbourhood, had come under fire several times in the last few days.

Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power, has been confined to a bunker in his presidential compound protected and surrounded by his best fighters who reportedly since Thursday have gone without water or electricity. Still, they repelled an initial attempt by Ouattara's forces to push into the residence.

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