Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Apr 4: The United Nations and French forces opened fire with attack helicopters Monday 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 strongman 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 their way to the heart of the city to reach Gbagbo's home. They have surrounded it, and as of early Tuesday 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.
Monday'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 and pro-Ouattara forces before launching a dramatic military assault last week.
On Monday, the U.N. fired on the Akouedo military base at around 5 p.m. local time (1700 GMT) to prevent Gbagbo's forces from using heavy weapons against civilians, said the spokesman for the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations Nick Birnback.
Explosions resonated 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 licking the sky above the home of the staunchly pro-Gbagbo republican guard.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement that he had authorized the 1,600-strong French Licorne force based here to help in the operation following an appeal from U.N. 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.
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 U.N. with monitoring a cease-fire and protecting 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, escalators and wine bars.
Following four months of attempts to negotiate Gbagbo's departure, the U.N. 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 last November, when he lost the presidential election to International Monetary Fund economist, Alassane Ouattara. 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 historic footage of France's past abuses in Africa, presenting Ouattara as a foreign puppet, and attempts to install him as an international conspiracy led by France and the U.N. Among the offers he turned down was President Barack Obama's proposal of a history professorship at a Boston university in return for stepping down peacefully.
A statement from the White House late Monday said that President Obama, in a phone conversation with Gabon's president, reiterated his belief that Gbagbo needs to “respect the will of the Ivorian people and end his claim to the presidency.”
Just after the U.N. announced their attack, a resident in the Cocody neighborhood where Gbagbo lives in Abidjan said he saw multiple helicopters circling and could hear firing. Others said they heard what sounded like fighter jets.
A senior diplomat who could not be named because of the sensitivity of the matter said that he had a map with blue stickers marking the six strategic points that needed to be taken out, and that five of the six had been hit by early Tuesday.
The five include Gbagbo's residence where heavy weaponry was destroyed, the republican guard, state TV, the Akban paramilitary base, and the arms depot at Akouedo which the diplomat said were bombarded by United Nations Mi-24 helicopters. A video posted on YouTube showed the depot being bombed. Tracers could be seen exploding from the burning core as Gbagbo's soldiers attempted to shoot down the helicopters.
“It's all over for Gbagbo—except the shooting,” said the ambassador.
At Gbagbo's residence, the troops had created a perimeter around the building, waiting to see if he would come out or respond. Ouattara's adviser said that he had been told Gbagbo had created a bunker inside his residence, locked from within. The pro-Ouattara soldiers proceeded with caution, because Ouattara had asked that his rival not be hurt.
Many people in Abidjan have not left their homes since last Wednesday, when Ouattara's fighters arrived on the perimeter of the city, and heavy clashes ensued.
A European businesswoman who was caught inside her high-rise office when the military offensive began last week survived for six days on cubes of sugar, coffee, and the bottle of whiskey she used to seal deals with clients. Weak from not eating, she finally walked out of the office building on Sunday, and braved the fighting to reach a nearby four-star hotel, where the other guests loaned her clothes and toiletries.
Barricaded inside her home, new mother Joceline Djaha, 24, said by telephone that she had stopped eating two days ago, when her stock ran out. For several days, her only food was boiled spaghetti—no sauce.
In the two days since she's been out of food, her breastmilk dried up. Her 1-year-old, she says, has become listless.
“Please let this stop,” said Djaha. “I can hold out without food. But I'm not sure my child can.” AP