After the slaughter in Srebrenica and Rwanda — while UN forces stood idly by — who would have expected UN peacekeepers to use their firepower to prevent a bloodbath?
But that’s exactly what’s they have done in the Ivory Coast, where civil war has terrorised the population, created 1 million refugees and seen at least 1000 people killed.
Last night UN and French attack helicopters fired four missiles into Laurent Gbagbo’s presidential palace and a nearby military camp in Abidjan to destroy heavy weapons that the UN claims were being fired on civilians.
President Gbagbo’s French adviser, Alain Toussaint, immediately declared the attacks to be an act of war, telling AFP, “They are war crimes. The end result of this action is the assassination of President Gbagbo.”
Another Gbagbo supporter asked incredulously, “How is it that France can now openly use its military force to attack the Ivory Coast and to support the rebel force in its military objectives? May the world be forgiven for the horrors that it allows today and the horrors that will come tomorrow.”
But others were just as passionate in support. “I think this is terrific news!” one commented on a BBC blog. “Gbagbo is a dictator, and there is only one way to deal with dictators. I stand with Ouattara, and pray that democracy finally comes to the Ivory Coast.”
No doubt the UN and the West, who have thrown their weight behind the legitimately elected president, Alassane Ouattara, share that hope.
There’s some amazing footage of the fighting, showing shells or missiles exploding on the camp and rockets being fired back. Check out the birdsong in the background and the strains of Edith Piaf amid the bangs.
Following the missile attacks, the UN was busily denying it had taken sides and claiming it has a mandate to protect civilians and UN staff. But there’s no doubt it has helped tip the balance towards Ouattara’s forces — who are outgunned — if it has neutralised some of Gbagbo’s firepower.
Not only does Gbagbo have 3000 republican guards, soldiers and young patriots on his side, but his forces also have tanks. By contrast, the rebels are armed with rifles and light machine guns and have arrived at the city in private cars and jeeps. And despite their repeated claims of imminent victory, they have so far failed to capture any of their key targets, including Abidjan’s state TV station, RTI, where a see-saw battle has raged.
Ouattara’s forces took the TV station last Thursday, but apparently lost control again on Friday. Since then, it has been pumping out virulent anti-UN and anti-French propaganda and calling on Gbagbo’s supporters to join the fight, but there’s speculation that the signal may be being broadcast from a house of the back of a truck.
Surprisingly, RTI has not shown pictures of Gbagbo rallying supporters. Instead, it has broadcast shots — which may or may not be current — of him drinking tea and meeting army commanders.
A “Gbagbo blog” — which Crikey has been unable to track down — claims that these pictures show the president relaxed and in a good mood, “surrounded by aides, friends and members of his family”, while the “international press gleefully predicted his downfall”.
However, there are reports of Gbagbo’s wife and child being seen at a beach resort in neighbouring Ghana, and unconfirmed rumours that the besieged leader may seek asylum there.
Meanwhile, Abidjan is still in lock-down, with residents too scared to leave their homes. Yesterday, the BBC reported that armed groups loyal to the two sides were roaming the streets. Three days earlier, one observer told France24 of “apocalyptic looting“. “I saw men shoot at every store in the neighbourhood. Then they ran inside and came back out with wheelbarrows full of stolen goods.”
“(Gbagbo’s) Young Patriots have taken control of the district,” he added. “They are armed with Kalashnikovs, grenades and bludgeons. I’m really afraid that they will attack us as well.”
Worst of all perhaps is that the divisions are likely to remain even after the fighting ends. The north-south divide that lies behind the civil war in Ivory Coast since 2002 is clearly not going to be easily healed even after Gbagbo goes.