UNITED NATIONS Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday the United Nations was not a party to the conflict in Ivory Coast despite having opened fire on one of incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo's military bases.
Two U.N. attack helicopters fired missiles at a pro-Gbagbo military camp in the main city Abidjan in what the world body said was an effort to protect civilians against heavy weapons. The attack came as fighters backing presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara poured into Abidjan to try to depose Gbagbo.
The United Nations and African organizations say Ouattara defeated Gbagbo in a presidential election last November but Gbagbo says he won and has refused to cede power.
In a statement, Ban said he had instructed the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast "to take the necessary measures to prevent the use of heavy weapons against the civilian population," with the support of French forces.
The mission, known as UNOCI, was mandated to protect civilians against heavy weapons in a Security Council resolution passed on March 30 that also imposed sanctions on Gbagbo and his closest associates.
"In this regard ... UNOCI undertook a military operation to prevent the use of heavy weapons which threaten the civilian population of Abidjan," Ban said.
"Let me emphasize that UNOCI is not a party to the conflict," the U.N. chief added. "In line with its Security Council mandate, the mission has taken this action in self defense and to protect civilians."
Ban blamed the spiraling violence in Ivory Coast, which has seen pro-Ouattara forces take over much of the country, on Gbagbo's refusal to hand over power to Ouattara.
In the past few days, Gbagbo's forces had used mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns against civilians in Abidjan and targeted UNOCI's headquarters at the Sebroko Hotel, wounding four peacekeepers, he said.
They had also attacked UNOCI patrols dispatched to protect civilians and convoys transporting wounded in Abidjan, wounding several more peacekeepers.
(Reporting by Patrick Worsnip; Editing by Eric Beech)