Ivory Coast President-elect Alassane Ouattara asked the United Nations to “neutralize” heavy weapons used by Laurent Gbagbo’s forces in Abidjan, as the fight for control of the nation’s commercial capital dragged into its second week.
French tanks and personnel carriers left an army base today and headed to Abidjan, according to the Associated Press, a day after United Nations and French helicopters fired on Gbagbo’s residence and the state television offices in the city.
“The operation aims to sustainably ensure protection of civilians, the normalization of life in Abidjan and the resumption of activities throughout the national territory,” Ouattara said in an e-mailed statement today.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he requested French assistance to mount the military operation in Abidjan, where French President Nicolas Sarkozy described the situation as “alarming.” Sarkozy said the civilian population, UN personnel and foreign diplomatic missions have continued to be the target of armed attacks and looting in several parts of Abidjan.
Gbagbo disputes Ouattara’s internationally recognized victory in a Nov. 28 election and refuses 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 largest city of the world’s top cocoa producer.
“The humanitarian situation in these parts is alarming,” Sarkozy said in an e-mailed statement today from Paris.
British Embassy employees in Abidjan were evacuated on April 9 after it came under fire from forces loyal to Gbagbo. The British Foreign Office in London yesterday said its staff and “diplomats of other nationalities from neighboring residences” left “under the auspices of the United Nations.”
Israeli Embassy staff members 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.
More than 1 million people have fled their homes during the four-month crisis, according to the UN. 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, Guillaume 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 a report by New York-based Human Rights Watch dated April 9.
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.
France “firmly supports” Ouattara’s intention to pursue the perpetrators of such acts in the national and international courts, Sarkozy said.