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UN, French Helicopters Attack Gbagbo’s Residence in Abidjan

United Nations and French helicopters opened fire on the residence of Ivory Coast’s former leader, Laurent Gbagbo, and the offices of state television in the city of Abidjan, according to eyewitnesses.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that he requested French assistance to mount the military operation “to prevent the use of heavy weapons which threaten the civilian population of Abidjan and our peacekeepers.”

“Civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence. The fighting must stop,” Ban said in a statement. He called on Gbagbo to “step aside immediately.”

Gbagbo has disputed Alassane Ouattara’s internationally recognized victory in the Nov. 28 presidential election and refused to step down as president. While many of his troops retreated or defected as Ouattara’s fighters swept down from the north of the country to Abidjan, Gbagbo’s forces have renewed fighting in the commercial capital of the world’s largest cocoa producing nation.

“A French helicopter fired missiles at the residence,” Jean Paul Turin, who could see the scene from his balcony, said today by telephone. “After the explosion, I saw a big black plume of smoke. The helicopter was being shot at from the building of the state television. It retaliated with a missile towards the state TV building.”

Residence on Fire

Gbagbo’s Paris-based spokesman, Alain Toussaint, said in an e-mail that the former president’s Abidjan residence had been damaged by the attack and that it “is at the moment on fire.”

“There were two UN helicopters flying over the city at the same time,” Turin said. “The UN helicopters were firing in the direction of the presidential palace” in Abidjan, a city of 4 million people.

Today’s fighting was also witnessed by Jean Jacques Chaubreau, who said by telephone that “around 5 p.m. I saw a French army helicopter fire four missiles towards Gbagbo’s residence.”

Hamadoun Toure, spokesman for the UN mission in Ivory Coast, said, “For the last three days we have been shot at.” Today’s operation, which he described as “ongoing,” was launched because the fighting hasn’t stopped, he said by phone from Abidjan.

Gbagbo’s Ruse

Yesterday, the U.S. condemned Gbagbo’s “renewed assault” and called on Gbagbo to end the fighting and surrender to Ouattara.

“It is clear that Gbagbo’s attempts at negotiation this week were nothing more than a ruse to regroup and rearm,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said late yesterday in a statement in Washington.

Fighting is “more intense in a number of neighborhoods in Abidjan,” the State Department said in an update of a warning to Americans to avoid travel in the country. In the Cocody district of Abidjan, Gbagbo loyalists attacked the Ouattara headquarters in the Golf Hotel, said Meite Sindou, a spokesman for the prime minister, Guillaume Soro. Ouattara’s forces fended off the attack, he said.

Embassy Evacuations

Staff at the British Embassy in Abidjan were evacuated yesterday after it came under fire from forces loyal to Gbagbo.

The British Foreign Office in London today said its staff and “diplomats of other nationalities from neighbouring residences” left “under the auspices of the United Nations.”

Staff at Israel’s embassy were rescued by the UN on April 9 after being holed up for several days. One diplomat was injured during the evacuation to neighboring Ghana, according to an e-mailed statement from Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

Commercial flights resumed yesterday at Abidjan airport, Neba Koffi, the acting general director of the airport, said in a telephone interview.

The European Union lifted restrictions April 8 on cocoa exports from Abidjan and the port of San Pedro, which also is under Ouattara’s control. Cocoa in London fell 25 pounds, or 1.3 percent, to 1,889 pounds ($3,095) per metric ton on April 8.

Human Rights Watch said forces loyal to Ouattara killed hundreds of civilians, burned at least 10 villages and raped women from an ethnic group perceived to be loyal to Gbagbo.

“Fighters often targeted people by ethnicity, and the attacks disproportionately affected those too old or feeble to flee,” said a report e-mailed April 8 by the New York-based group. “Dozens of women were also detained for a day or longer and repeatedly raped.”

One Million Flee

The killings occurred during a March offensive by the Republican Forces in the country’s west, the group said.

Ouattara’s administration attempted to call up soldiers from the military formerly loyal to Gbagbo, who was president from 2000 until last year.

“As part of the mobilization for the resumption of service,” the prime minister and defense minister “require officers, junior officers and other ranks of the army, navy, air force and Gendarmerie Nationale to register on open lists,” a Ouattara-administration statement received by e-mail said.

More than 1 million people have fled their homes during the four-month crisis, according to the United Nations. French and UN peacekeeping forces in Abidjan began helicopter strikes against Gbagbo’s forces April 4.

Human Rights Watch said that, before February, abuses against civilians were committed mainly by forces loyal to Gbagbo. That changed after fighters nominally under the control of Ouattara’s Prime Minister Soro began an offensive that month.

The atrocities culminated in a March 29 massacre of hundreds of civilians in Duekoue, near the Liberian border, home to a large number of people from the Guere ethnic group, most of whom supported Gbagbo, according to the report.

The Hague-based International Criminal Court said it has started an investigation into alleged crimes in Ivory Coast, and Ouattara’s administration has agreed to submit to its jurisdiction.

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