UN, French forces attack Gbagbo bases in Ivory Coast

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French and UN helicopters opened fire on the Ivory Coast presidential palace and bases of strongman Laurent Gbagbo Monday amid an all-out offensive to make him quit the presidency.

The helicopters targeted the presidency, Gbagbo's residence and military barracks in the main city Abidjan hours after fighters for internationally recognised leader Alassane Ouattara launched a new offensive to unseat him.

The attacks came as the French government announced in Paris that its troops and UN soldiers had been given the go-ahead to start operations to "neutralise" heavy weapons being used on civilians by Gbagbo's fighters.

Helicopters from the UN mission, called UNOCI, worked in coordination with those from the French forces, said the UN spokesman in the country, Hamadoun Toure.

"UNOCI helicopters fired on the Agban and Akuedo military camps as well as the palace and presidential residence," he said.

"We are working with the French force Licorne, in line with our mandate and the UN resolution 1975," he added.

The resolution was adopted by the UN Security Council last month, when new sanctions were also agreed as part of a raft of measures to try to make Gbagbo hand over power after losing November elections.

An AFP journalist saw four Licorne helicopters firing on the Agban military camp while other witnesses reported UN helicopters shooting on the Akouedo barracks.

In Paris, the French presidency announced that UN and French troops "have engaged in actions aimed at neutralising heavy arms used against civilians and UN personnel in Abidjan."

"The Secretary General of the United Nations (Ban Ki-moon) requested the support of French forces in these operations," it said in a statement.

President Nicolas Sarkozy "responded positively to this request, and authorised French forces... to participate in operations conducted by UNOCI aimed at protecting civilians," it said.

"France calls for the immediate cessation of all violence against civilians. The perpetrators of these crimes must be brought to justice," it said.

Outtarra's offensive began in the early afternoon when heavy weapons fire and explosions could be heard from the central Plateau area, site of the presidential palace.

"The offensive has been launched," said Sidiki Konate, spokesman for Ouattara's prime minister Guillaume Soro.

"At 13H00, movements started towards four large corridors. We are securing our passage. The objective is to converge on Plateau and Cocody (north)," he said.

Cocody is home to Gbagbo, who refuses to acknowledge that he lost November 28 elections and is fighting to the last to keep hold of the presidency.

Gbagbo has rallied supporters to form a "human shield" around his residence.

One of his advisors in Paris, Toussaint Alain, said the strikes by UN and French troops were "illegal" and amounted to an "assassination attempt".

With tensions mounting ahead of a feared final showdown between the rival forces, residents of the country's main city of five million were in lockdown in their homes while armed men patrolled the streets.

About 250 foreign nationals were flown out on Monday after 167 left on Sunday, according to the French military which had taken over control of the airport in Abidjan.

"Four planes left for Dakar and Lome (Monday). There were about 250 foreign citizens, including French," said spokesman for the French forces Licorne (Unicorn), Frederic Daguillon.

After bolstering forces with 300 men over the weekend, France announced another 150 would be deployed, charged mainly with protecting foreigners, taking the number to 1,650.

Weary of failed diplomatic efforts to resolve the post-election crisis, Ouattara's army launched their lightning offensive a week ago, seizing much of the country and entering Abidjan late last week.

Weakened by the desertion of key allies and isolated by the international community when the battle for Abidjan began, Gbagbo since clawed his way back, managing to repulse attacks on his strongholds.

Reports have meanwhile emerged of human rights abuses over the week including the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the western town of Duekoue.

The International Red Cross has said 800 died in Duekoue in one day in an incident "particularly shocking by its size and brutality".

The Catholic mission Caritas reported 1,000 were "killed or disappeared" while the UN mission gave an initial death toll of 330, saying that while both camps were involved in the mass killings, the majority of deaths were caused by pro-Ouattara fighters.

© 2011 AFP

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