French armor advances towards Gbagbo’s residence
ABIDJAN | Mon Apr 11, 2011 8:48am EDT
ABIDJAN (Reuters) – A column of more than 30 French armored vehicles advanced toward the residence of Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo in Abidjan on Monday, a witness told Reuters.
A day after U.N. and French helicopters attacked forces loyal to Gbagbo, damaging the presidential residence in Abidjan and destroying heavy weapons, a French military spokesman said the aim of the current operation was to avoid a “bloodbath” but declined to give further details.
“The vehicles are advancing and there are (French) soldiers behind with a helicopter hovering above,” said Alfred Kouassi, a resident who lives in a high-rise building overlooking the boulevard where the French vehicles were moving forward.
“We can hear automatic gunfire,” he said.
Gbagbo has refused to step down after his rival Alassane Ouattara won last November’s presidential election, according to results certified by the United Nations, reigniting a civil war that has claimed more than a thousand lives and uprooted a million people.
Residents reported heavy fighting on Monday morning between forces loyal to Ouattara and those backing Gbagbo around Abidjan’s Cocody and Plateau districts, still controlled by forces loyal to Gbagbo.
Hundreds of fresh pro-Ouattara troops massed at a base camp just north of Abidjan, where a small bus arrived, filled with new Kalashnikov rifles still in their transparent blue wrappers.
The French armored vehicles, each carrying between four to eight men, left their base in the south and headed toward downtown Abidjan early on Monday.
“Armed and ready for combat,” the commanding officer ordered. The men cocked their weapons ready to fire as the vehicles rolled out of the base.
“The operation is underway. I cannot give you more details. The aim is to ensure a bloodbath is averted,” said Frederick Daguillon, spokesman for the French force in Ivory Coast.
France, the former colonial power in Ivory Coast with more than 1,600 troops in the country, has taken a lead role in efforts to persuade Gbagbo to relinquish power, infuriating his supporters who accuse Paris of neo-colonialism.
A spokesman for Gbagbo in Paris said that Gbagbo was still alive after the bombing of his residence.
“President Gbagbo is still alive despite the violence of the bombing overnight which destroyed several buildings at the head of state’s residence, including the first lady’s offices. We have counted 12 dead,” Alain Toussaint said in a statement.
“The bombing resumed 30 minutes ago, some 50 French tanks have taken up position in the streets around the residence,” he said. “Between 300 and 400 heavily armed French foot soldiers are also positioned in front of the residence, ready to attack.”
Some Gbagbo supporters around Cocody district, where his residence is located, tried to halt the French armored vehicles, kneeling in front of them praying, but were quickly dispersed when another round of firing began.
A resident said he saw 15 pro-Gbagbo soldiers surrender their weapons and battle fatigues to the French soldiers. A French army source later said over 100 pro-Gbagbo army had surrendered their weapons.
Helicopter attacks a week ago on Gbagbo’s heavy weapons by the United Nations and France appeared to bring Gbagbo’s forces to the point of surrender, but they used a lull in fighting to regroup before taking more ground in Abidjan.
HEAVY WEAPONS TARGETED
The latest fighting in Abidjan pushed cocoa prices up by more than 3 percent to $3,077 per tonne, while Ivory Coast’s $2.3 billion bond fell by one point as hopes faded for a quick resolution to the conflict.
However a major shipping firm, Maersk Line, said one of its ships would this week call at Abidjan to pick up cocoa for the first time since sanctions were lifted by the European Union.
Hamadoun Toure, spokesman for the U.N. mission in the country, had said on Sunday U.N. and French forces were seeking to neutralize Gbagbo’s heavy weapons.
“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.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said the 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 on Sunday, authorizing U.N. peacekeepers to use “all necessary means” to suppress the use of heavy weapons by Gbagbo’s troops, protect civilians and peacekeepers.
Ouattara’s forces 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.
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.
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.
Source Reuters By Ange Aboa and Loucoumane Coulibaly