French air strikes pound I.Coast Gbagbo's residence
France pounded the residence of Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo with fresh air strikes Monday hours after joint UN strikes to destroy heavy arms used by the embattled leader's loyalists.
One of the veteran leader's ministers said the residence had been partly destroyed, while street-to-street fighting resumed between the residence and the hotel that is headquarters of Gbagbo's rival Alassane Ouattara.
French helicopters "fired several missiles into the zone. A large plume of black smoke is rising from around the residence," where Gbagbo is holed up in a bunker a witness told AFP, asking not to be named.
"Heavy machine-guns targeted one of the helicopters but it was not hit," the witness added.
United Nations troops and French forces attacked positions of pro-Gbagbo troops overnight after the luxury hotel serving as the base of UN-recognised president Ouattara came under fire.
A spokesman for the UN mission in Ivory Coast (UNOCI) said its peacekeepers and France's Licorne force had aimed to destroy heavy weapons that were being used against civilians.
Gbagbo's youth minister Charles Ble Goude told France 24 television that the French raids had partially destroyed the residence.
"We denounce France's interventionism, its invading racism. The heavy weapons are not in the residence," Ble Goude said by telephone from an unknown location.
An aide to French President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted the French troops were engaged in order to avoid a bloodbath rather than to depose Gbagbo, who has refused to step down since the UN deemed he lost a November election.
"France does not have the mission to chase out Laurent Gbagbo militarily," Henri Guaino told France 2 television. "This military intervention was requested by the UN to protect the civilian population."
Missiles were fired at Gbagbo's residence shortly before 11:00 pm (2300 GMT) on Sunday, a source close to the operation said. The presidential palace and military camps were also targeted.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon confirmed he had ordered the attack and repeated UN accusations that the Gbagbo camp had used an offer of talks he made last week "to regroup their forces and redeploy heavy weapons".
His forces had since resumed heavy weapon attacks on civilians, on the UN peacekeepers' base and on Ouattara's base at the Golf Hotel, he added.
"These actions are unacceptable and cannot continue," Ban said in a statement.
France on Monday said its military had taken part in the raids at the UN chief's request.
"The Secretary General of the United Nations asked the president of the republic to continue the participation of French forces in the operations ... to neutralise heavy weapons used against the civilian population," the French presidency said in a statement.
Ouattara said late Sunday he had asked the UN to "neutralise the heavy weapons."
The continued use of heavy weapons against civilians, ambassadors' residences, the UN mission and Ouattara's headquarters at the Golf Hotel "dangerously imperils the lives of the civilian population and their legitimate expectations of peace," he said in a statement.
The downtown business district of Plateau and nearby Cocody are largely controlled by forces loyal to Gbagbo.
But Ouattara is under pressure over allegations that his forces committed atrocities in the west of the country as they advanced on Abidjan late last month.
Human Rights Watch has said they killed or raped hundreds of people and burned villages, citing new evidence of summary killings of Gbagbo supporters in the far west.
French nationals returning to Paris late Sunday from Abidjan spoke of "chaos" in Ivory Coast's biggest city.
Salif Kone, 40, who had been away for two weeks helping his family in Cocody, told AFP: "It's hell, the apocalypse. In the streets you see charred bodies, burnt cars."
The conflict in the world's top cocoa producer has also hit supplies of food and water and power, with UN agencies warning of the threat of mass outbreaks of disease including a resurgence of cholera in Abidjan.
© 2011 AFP