UN chief denies raids mean war with Gbagbo

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UN chief Ban Ki-moon insisted that helicopter raids Monday by UN and French forces in Ivory Coast were to defend civilians and were not a declaration of war against strongman Laurent Gbagbo.

Ban said in a statement that he had ordered the UN mission in Ivory Coast, UNOCI, to start "a military operation to prevent the use of heavy weapons which threaten the civilian population of Abidjan."

UN and French attack helicopters fired Monday at military camps loyal to Gbagbo and the presidential palace and residence where he is believed to be based.

Several hundred people have been killed in the Ivory Coast conflict since a bitterly disputed presidential election in November. Forces loyal to internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara now say they have the main city Abidjan surrounded.

Gbagbo's forces have been accused of killing civilians and attacking UN peacekeepers. Ban said intense fighting in recent days was "a direct consequence of Mr. Gbagbo's refusal to relinquish power and allow a peaceful transition" to Ouattara.

Ban accused Gbagbo forces of having "intensified and escalated" the use of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-guns against civilians.

They had also targeted the UNOCI headquarters in Abidjan "with heavy-caliber sniper fire as well as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades." Four peacekeepers have been wounded, he said.

"Furthermore, forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo have attacked UNOCI patrols dispatched to protect civilians and convoys transporting wounded in Abidjan, resulting in several more wounded peacekeepers," added the statement.

But the UN leader insisted the 11,000 peacekeeping force did not have orders to bring down Gbagbo.

"Let me emphasize that UNOCI is not a party to the conflict," Ban said. "In line with its Security Council mandate, the mission has taken this action in self defense and to protect civilians."

Ban made an urgent request to France's President Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday for help to launch the rare UN military operation.

"It is urgent to launch necessary military operations to put out of action the heavy arms which have been used against the civilian population and the peacekeepers," he said.

Ban asked Sarkozy to give "urgent" approval for joint military operations between the French troops in Ivory Coast and the UN force.

Sarkozy replied that he had authorized military involvement under the mandate given by UN Security Council resolution 1975 which allows French troops in Ivory Coast to help UNOCI to protect civilians.

"I consider, like you, that the protection of civilians threatened in Ivory Coast is an urgent necessity, parallel to political efforts by the whole of the international community aiming to resolve the current crisis," Sarkozy's letter said.

© 2011 AFP

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