Civilians signal they are unarmed as they go out in search of provisions… (European Pressphoto Agency,…)
Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — United Nations and French military helicopters in Ivory Coast attacked two military bases in Abidjan, along with the presidential palace and residence, undercutting Laurent Gbagbo's desperate fight to retain power after an election the international community says he lost.
The attacks came as forces loyal to Gbagbo's rival, Alassane Ouattara, announced a big "final push" to drive him from office, with fighters gathering at the edge of Abidjan, the nation's sprawling commercial capital.
About 4 million people remain in the city, many of them trapped by combat. An additional 1 million have fled, according to the U.N., and thousands have been killed in the fighting, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
The U.N. and French strikes against the military bases loyal to Gbagbo, the first in Ivory Coast's crisis, were intended to destroy heavy weapons that were being used in attacks on civilians and the world body's peacekeeping mission, U.N. officials said.
The U.N. said the Agban and Akouedo bases were attacked, as well as the presidential palace and residence, in line with the U.N.'s mandate to protect civilians and its own peacekeeping troops.
Gbagbo is so isolated internationally that what would have been unthinkable even a month ago — attacking U.N. peacekeepers — now appears to be part of his last-ditch effort to hold on to power. Gbagbo ordered U.N. personnel to leave Ivory Coast last year after the world body recognized Ouattara as the legitimate winner of November elections, but the U.N. did not accept Gbagbo's authority to do so.
The U.N. compound in Abidjan has come under attack in recent days, as have U.N. convoys. Gbagbo's state television, RTI, has for weeks broadcast statements accusing the world body of genocide.
Ouattara's forces launched an offensive last week to force Gbagbo from power. They seized much of the country in a few days, but met fierce resistance from Gbagbo's loyalists in the heart of Abidjan.
The U.N. requested the help of French peacekeeping troops in the attacks Monday evening. The French government has reinforced its contingent by several hundred to about 1,650 troops in recent days.
Gbagbo's spokesman in Paris, Toussaint Alain, told Agence France-Presse on Monday that the U.N. and French attacks were illegal and amounted to war crimes. The attacks led to an assassination bid against Gbagbo, he said.
Journalists and civilians also have come under fire in recent days. The French government announced Monday that armed men had invaded the Novotel, the hotel in Abidjan where many journalists have based themselves, and abducted several people including two French nationals.
In recent days French journalists traveling in a convoy outside Abidjan were shot at by militias.