ABIDJAN (Reuters) - U.N. and French helicopters attacked forces loyal to incumbent Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo late into Sunday night, damaging the presidential residence and destroying heavy weapons that U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon ordered silenced.
Gbagbo has refused to step down since U.N.-certified elections last November showed his rival Alassane Ouattara won, reigniting a civil war that has claimed over a thousand lives and uprooted over a million people.
“The operations are on going,” Hamadoun Toure, spokesman for UN mission in the country said late on Sunday.
“We had targeted and hit several different places where we found heavy weapons, not only the areas around Gbagbo’s residence, but all places where we know that there are heavy weapons,” Toure said.
“We will review the situation tomorrow (Monday).” he added.
Ban said U.N. headquarters in Ivory Coast, Ouattara’s base and two civilian districts had been hit by machinegun, sniper and rocket-propelled grenade fire in recent days.
“These actions are unacceptable and cannot continue,” said Ban, authorising U.N. peacekeepers to use “all necessary means” to suppress the use of heavy weapons by Gbagbo’s troops.
U.N. forces had launched military operations “to prevent the use of heavy weapons which threaten the civilian population of Abidjan and our peacekeepers,” he said.
Pro-Gbagbo sites including a naval base and several military bases around Abidjan were targeted, witnesses said.
Gbagbo’s spokesman Ahoua Don Mello said by telephone that thick smoke billowed from the presidential residence after the combined French-U.N. strikes, but he declined to say whether Gbagbo was inside at the time.
“U.N. and French helicopters continue to fire at President Gbagbo’s residence which has been partially destroyed,” he said by telephone.
Residents near the presidential palace and Gbagbo’s residence, where he is said to be holed up with his family, close advisers and about 1,000 militiamen, said they heard heavy cannon fire and shooting on Sunday afternoon.
Ouattara’s government said it had asked the United Nations to carry out its mandate after its base in the U.N.-protected Golf Hotel and civilians came under heavy weapons attack from the Gbagbo camp.
They have launched a counter-attack against Ouattara’s troops, who had swept from the north to coastal Abidjan almost unopposed more than a week ago in a drive to install Ouattara as the top cocoa producer’s leader.
Gbagbo’s defeat had appeared imminent last week and talks took place between the two sides. But Gbagbo’s soldiers have dug in, holding on to swathes of the city and frustrating hopes of a swift end to the conflict.
The U.S. State Department condemned the attack on Ouattara’s hotel and said in a statement Gbagbo’s attempts at negotiation last week were nothing more than a ruse to regroup and rearm.
A Reuters correspondent at the French military base near the airport, about 15 km (9 miles) from Gbagbo’s residence, said loud explosions could be heard coming from the direction of the fighting on Sunday. Four helicopters, two U.N. and two French, carried out operations.
A resident of Cocody neighbourhood where Gbagbo’s residence is located said he could see thick black smoke coming from the building.
Earlier, a lull in fighting had allowed residents to come out in numbers not seen in the past 10 days to buy food and other supplies.
Even if Gbagbo relinquishes power, Ouattara’s ability to unify the West African country may be undermined by reports of atrocities against civilians since his forces charged into Abidjan. Ouattara’s camp has denied involvement.
NGO Human Rights Watch said on Saturday that forces loyal to Ouattara had killed hundreds of civilians, raped over 20 women and girls perceived as belonging Gbagbo camp and burned at least 10 villages in western Ivory Coast.
Those loyal Gbagbo, in turn, killed more than 100 alleged supporters of Ouattara in March.
Relief agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), said on Sunday that the battle for Abidjan is pushing its four million residents ever closer to a health disaster.
Additional reporting by Emmanuel Braun in Abidjan, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Brian Love in Paris and Bate Felix in Dakar; writing by Bate Felix; editing by Philippa Fletcher