UNITED NATIONS — U.N. peacekeepers and French troops launched military operations against loyalists of Ivory Coast’s longtime strongman Monday, a significant escalation of force that effectively placed peacekeepers on one side of the West African country’s deepening civil war.
The United Nations and France authorized helicopter gunships to target key installations and heavy-weapons sites after days of attacks by loyalists of incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo on peacekeepers and civilians, according to U.N. officials.
Two U.N. Mi-24 helicopters, piloted by Ukrainian peacekeepers, attacked two military bases controlled by Gbagbo’s forces. U.N. officials said French forces targeted heavy weaponry near the presidential palace and residence in Abidjan, as well as other installations under Gbagbo’s control.
The attacks marked a dramatic development in the international community’s efforts to force Gbagbo from power and provided a boost to Ivorian forces backing Gbagbo’s political rival, Alassane Ouattara, who is widely recognized as the winner of the country’s Nov. 28 presidential election.
Ouattara’s ambassador to Paris, Ali Coulibaly, said Tuesday that Gbagbo was believed to be in the process of negotiating his surrender, but Alain Toussant, Gbagbo’s adviser in Europe, said the president remained in his residence and would not give up.
But three of Gbagbo’s top generals have ordered their forces to cease fighting, surrender all weapons to the United Nations and to seek their protection from reprisals from Ouattara’s forces, according to a statement Tuesday by the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast.
The officials were Gen. Philippe Mangou, chief of staff of the Security Defense Forces; Gen. Thiape Kassarate Edouard, the top commander of the national gendarmerie; and general Bruno Dogbo Ble, commander of the Republican Guard.
“The U.N. received telephone calls from three high-ranking officials that an order to cease fire was being given to elements in the Security Defense Forces, including the special forces,” according to a U.N. statement. “The order was alo given to surrender weapons to UNOCI [the U.N. Mission in Ivory Coast] and seek protection from its forces.”
The statement says the U.N. mission has ordered its own troops to take weapons from Gbagbo’s forces when they are surrendered and to offer protection to disarmed soldiers.
Monday’s attacks represented a rare instance in which the United Nations has used force against a conventional army.
In a statement, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the United Nations was engaging in a limited military operation taken “in self defense and to protect” civilians. The operation, he said, did not constitute a decision by the United Nations to become “a party to the conflict” in Ivory Coast.
Nonetheless, the use of the 9,000-member U.N. peacekeeping mission for offensive operations raised the possibility that it could get drawn deeper into a civil war, particularly if the Ivorian conflict is protracted. Hundreds of people have already been killed and up to 1 million have fled the violence. On Monday, a coalition of fighters loyal to Ouattara was massing on the edge of the commercial capital, Abidjan, suggesting the worst fighting might be yet to come.
Ban requested French support for a military operation Sunday, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy informed Ban that he had “authorized French force . . . to participate in these joint operations.”
“I, like you, believe that protecting civilians threatened in Cote d’Ivoire is an urgent necessity,” Sarkozy said in a letter released Monday.
France, the former colonial power in Ivory Coast, seized control of the country’s key airport, near Abidjan, on Sunday and has reinforced its military presence in the country with 400 additional troops, bringing its total number to nearly 1,500.
The military offensive marked a rare show of lethal force by the United Nations. In the past decade, the United Nations has carried out what it calls “robust peacekeeping” — essentially offensive military operations — in Sierra Leone, Congo and Haiti.
In Ivory Coast, the U.N. mandate gives peacekeepers broad authority to use force to protect civilians and support the peace process, but it does not authorize them to take sides in the country’s conflict.
Aides to Gbagbo condemned the escalation of force Monday.
“I’m personally shocked by the U.N.’s behavior in Cote d’Ivoire. It is not part of their mandate to carry out offensive attacks against Ivorian institutions,” said Zakaria Fellah, a foreign policy adviser to Gbagbo. “The U.N. has not been an impartial player, but rather a party taking sides with Ouattara’s people.”
Fellah conceded that Gbagbo would be unlikely to withstand the combined attacks against his forces, saying that Gbagbo has never “been as isolated as today.” But he praised his “heroic resistance,” citing his refusal to yield to Ouattara’s forces.
“I would say the French will take a more aggressive stand in the next hours and day to dislodge Mr. Gbagbo from power. He is not a coward; he is a man of conviction. I believe he will fight till the end,” he said.
U.N. officials have described Gbagbo as anything but heroic, saying his forces have blindly fired mortar rounds into Abidjan neighborhoods and at U.N. personnel. Eleven U.N. peacekeepers have been injured over the past 72 hours, including four U.N. “blue helmets” who were wounded when Gbagbo’s forces fired a rocket-propelled grenade into a U.N. armored personnel vehicle. On Sunday, the United Nations ordered the temporary relocation of about 200 civilian staff members to the northern town of Dueke.
“The security situation has deteriorated dramatically over the past days with fighting having escalated between forces loyal to President Ouattara and those forces remaining loyal to Mr. Gbagbo,” Ban said. “This is a direct consequence of Mr. Gbagbo’s refusal to relinquish power and allow a peaceful transition to President Ouattara.”
Ivory Coast emerged from a civil war in 2003. The latest violence comes more than four months after the United Nations certified the election of Ouattara, a move that triggered broad international support, but Gbagbo has refused to cede power. Several months of high-level diplomatic efforts, combined with financial sanctions, have failed to budge him.
U.N. officials and human rights groups say that in an effort to consolidate power, Gbagbo’s forces have perpetrated serious human rights abuses against civilians suspected of supporting Ouattara. But Ouattara’s forces have also been accused of carrying out reprisal killings and extrajudicial executions of prisoners during their march to the capital.
On Sunday, Ban voiced concern about reports by the U.N. mission that Ouattara’s forces killed 230 people in the western town of Duekoue. Ouattara has denied the allegations and agreed to cooperate with an independent investigation into the killings.
“All of a sudden the U.N. decides there is a bad guy in this movie and the bad guy is Mr. Gbagbo,” Fellah said. “The angel on the other side is Mr. Ouattara.”