Ivory Coast fighting spurts after Gbagbo positions attacked
Fighting erupted Monday near the residence of Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo after massive overnight raids by UN and French troops to destroy heavy arms used by his loyalists.
"There are firing heavy arms and we are hearing automatic fire," a witness said early Monday, speaking from Abidjan's chic Cocody suburb where the presidential complex is located and where Gbagbo has been holed up in a bunker.
He located the fighting in the area between the headquarters of the state television network and the gendarmerie training school, both Gbagbo bastions, but said there were no attacks on the presidential residence.
United Nations troops and French forces attacked positions of pro-Gbagbo troops overnight after a luxury hotel serving as the base of UN-recognised president Alassane 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.
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.
Witnesses said at least four missiles had been fired towards the residence and three helicopters had fired on the presidential compound.
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.
Gbagbo's spokesman, Ahoua Don Mello, accused France, Ivory Coast's former colonial master, of trying to eliminate the incumbent leader.
"There is no other goal (but) to assassinate the head of state, all the rest is just pretext," he told AFP.
Residents had earlier Sunday reported renewed heavy weapons fire near the presidential palace, the scene of fierce fighting since early April.
The downtown business district of Plateau and nearby Cocody are largely controlled by forces loyal to Gbagbo, who has refused to leave the presidency after losing November elections to Ouattara, internationally recognised as the new leader.
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 said Saturday 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