1:03pm

Mon April 4, 2011
Africa

Army Chief Returns To Side Of Ivory Coast Strongman

A U.N. helicopter fired at strongman Laurent Gbagbo's forces on Monday as France authorized its military to take out his heavy weapons, an unprecedented escalation in the international community's efforts to oust the entrenched leader.

The office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had requested France's military participation. Gbagbo lost presidential elections in November but has refused to cede power to Alassane Ouattara even as his West African nation teetered on the brink of all-out civil war.

On Monday, the U.N. helicopter fired on Gbagbo's troops at about 5 p.m. local time (1700 GMT) to prevent them from using heavy weapons at the Akouedo camp in Abidjan, said Nick Birnback, the spokesman for the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

"The country has been plunged into violence with a heavy toll on the civilian population," Ban said in a statement released Monday. "In the past few days, forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo have intensified and escalated their use of heavy weapons such as mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns against the civilian population in Abidjan."

An especially strongly worded resolution passed last week by the U.N. Security Council condemned "in the strongest terms the recent escalation of violence throughout the country which could amount to crimes against humanity."

The unanimous resolution also stressed the council's "full support" for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast "to use all necessary means to carry out its mandate to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence ... including to prevent the use of heavy weapons against the civilian population."

Frederic Daguillon, the spokesman for the French force Licorne protecting civilians in Ivory Coast said earlier Monday on France-Info radio that the total French military presence in the former French colony is 1,650.

Meanwhile, fighters backing Ouattara entered Abidjan by the truckload Monday afternoon as part of a final offensive to take the last piece of the West African country still largely controlled by Gbagbo.

Residents in two different districts in northern Abidjan reported seeing soldiers advancing into the city. Thousands of troops had been amassing outside Ivory Coast's commercial capital since last week, readying for the final battle to topple Gbagbo and install Ouattara.

Alain Lobognon, a spokesman for Ouattara's defense minister, confirmed by telephone that the general offensive had begun Monday afternoon.

Their target is the presidential palace and the mansion where Gbagbo is believed to be holed up. Both are located on the edges of a lagoon in the heart of the country's biggest city.

Explosions came from the city's downtown core, in the direction of the palace and a large military base. Machine gunfire erupted on the lagoonside highway just two blocks from the palace.

Earlier, Gen. Phillippe Mangou, the country's army chief, rejoined the military days after deserting and seeking refuge at a foreign diplomat's residence.

Mangou, his wife and their five children left the South African ambassador's residence in Abidjan after fleeing there last week, said Clayson Monyela, a spokesman for South Africa's foreign affairs ministry.

Mangou's departure had been seen as a major blow to Gbagbo.

On Monday, the streets of Abidjan resembled a ghost town as the city's residents tensely awaited a final battle for power. Thousands of troops backing Ouattara are amassed at a tollbooth some 20 miles from the heart of Abidjan, where both the presidential palace and presidential mansion are located.

Terrified residents hiding in their homes in Abidjan described the sound of heavy artillery fire ringing in their ears, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reported. Those able to peep out of windows said that armed men were roaming around the commercial capital.

"I can see from the windows four guys hiding their faces with Kalashnikovs," one witness told NPR. "We don't know what they're looking for. It's very scary. And there's another group, eight of them, they're wearing bluejeans. We don't know whether they're fighters or people who loot, but they have Kalashnikovs."

Some residents of Abidjan reported running out of water and food, and many no longer have electricity.

U.N. employees were ordered to take refuge inside the basement of their main building starting at 7 a.m. Monday.

The top U.N. diplomat in Ivory Coast estimates that as many as 50,000 members of Gbagbo's security force deserted or defected in the hours after the pro-Ouattara forces descended on Abidjan late Wednesday. Despite the defections, Gbagbo has done his best to fight back, issuing a call to arms to his supporters who descended on his residence on Sunday to form a human shield around it.

Leaders around the world from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Ban reiterated calls for Gbagbo to step down over the weekend.

"There has been too much bloodshed," Ban said. "I renew my call on Mr. Gbagbo to step down to avoid further violence and transfer power immediately to the legitimate general candidate president Ouattara."

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Catholic charity Caritas both reported that between 800 and 1,000 people were killed last week in the western Ivorian town of Duekoue. Witnesses said Red Cross workers retrieved bodies from the bush and carried them to a mass grave.

Duekoue was captured last week by forces loyal to Ouattara. Supporters of the president-elect denied that their troops were responsible, saying talk of a massacre was nonsense and that about 150 people died in fierce fighting between Ouattara's and Gbagbo's troops.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reported from Accra, Ghana, for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.