UN joins battle in Ivory Coast
French aircraft support assault on Abidjan
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — The United Nations and French forces opened fire with attack helicopters yesterday on the arsenal of this country’s entrenched ruler, as columns of foot soldiers finally pierced the city limit and surrounded the strongman’s home.
The fighters aiming to topple Laurent Gbagbo had succeeded in taking nearly the entire countryside in just three days last week, but they faltered once they reached the country’s largest city, where the presidential palace and residence are located.
With the help of the international forces, the armed group fighting to install the country’s democratically elected leader, Alassane Ouattara, pushed into the heart of the city to reach Gbagbo’s home. They have surrounded it, and as of early today they were waiting for him to step down, said a close adviser to Ouattara who could not be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
Yesterday’s offensive, which included air attacks on the ruler’s home as well as three strategic military garrisons, marked an unprecedented escalation in the international community’s efforts to oust Gbagbo, who lost the presidential election in November yet has refused to cede power to Ouattara even as the world’s largest cocoa producer teetered on the brink of all-out civil war.
The postelection violence has left hundreds dead, most of them Ouattara supporters, and has forced up to 1 million people to flee. Ouattara has used his considerable international clout to financially and diplomatically suffocate Gbagbo before launching a dramatic military assault last week.
Yesterday, the UN fired on the Akouedo military base at around 5 p.m. to prevent Gbagbo’s forces from using heavy weapons against civilians, said Nick Birnback, a spokesman for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
Explosions reverberated from the city’s downtown core a few blocks from the presidential palace and near the base of the Republican Guard, and those living nearby barricaded their windows with mattresses. Flames could be seen rising above the home of the staunchly pro-Gbagbo guard.
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said he had authorized the 1,600-strong French Licorne force based here to help in the operation after an appeal from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who said that the use of force was necessary to prevent further attacks on civilians.
“In the past few days, forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo have intensified and escalated their use of heavy weapons such as mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and heavy machine guns against the civilian population in Abidjan,’’ Ban said in a statement.
Several French helicopters took part in the UN operations aimed at knocking Gbagbo’s heavy weapons.
Ivory Coast gained independence from France in 1960, and some 20,000 French citizens still lived there when a brief civil war broke out in 2002.
French troops were then tasked by the UN to monitor a cease-fire and protect foreign nationals in Ivory Coast, which was once an economic star and is still one of the only countries in the region with four-lane highways, skyscrapers, and wine bars.
After four months of attempts to negotiate Gbagbo’s departure, the UN Security Council unanimously passed an especially strong resolution giving the 12,000-strong peacekeeping operation the right “to use all necessary means to carry out its mandate to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence . . . including to prevent the use of heavy weapons against the civilian population.’’
Gbagbo has stubbornly refused every olive branch extended to him since November, when he lost the presidential election to Ouattara, an International Monetary Fund economist. Gbagbo insisted he had won, even though his country’s own election commission declared him defeated and the United Nations certified his opponent’s victory.
The 65-year-old former history professor dug in, using state television to disseminate historical footage of France’s past abuses in Africa.
He depicted Ouattara as a foreign puppet and branded attempts to install him as an international conspiracy led by France and the UN. Among the offers he turned down was President Obama’s proposal of a history professorship at a Boston university.