At least six French and two UN helicopters were involved in the attack, authorised by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. He accused Gbagbo of using heavy weapons against Ivory Coast civilians and the UN forces trying to protect them.
“UN and French helicopters continue to fire at President Gbagbo’s residence, which has been partly destroyed,” Gbagbo’s spokesman Ahoua Don Mello told Reuters. “There is thick smoke coming from it, but we have no other details on the damage.” He did not say whether Gbagbo was at the residence at the time.
Abidjan remained on a knife edge on Sunday, with no end in sight to Ivory Coast’s civil war. There is growing evidence of atrocities being committed on both sides, with the UN’s 9,000 peacekeepers unable to make a significant intervention. What had seemed to be a morally simple contest between democrat and dictator is becoming altogether murkier.
The reputation of Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised winner of last November’s election, has taken a battering in recent days. A Human Rights Watch report – detailed on Saturday in the Guardian – said forces loyal to Ouattara killed hundreds of civilians, raped his rival’s supporters and burned villages in the country’s west. Survivors described how the soldiers “summarily executed and raped perceived Gbagbo supporters in their homes, as they worked in the fields, as they fled, or as they tried to hide in the bush”.
Such claims have the potential to damage the UN, EU and African Union, all of whom have endorsed Ouattara, as the legitimate president,and most of all France, which launched air strikes against Gbagbo’s military a week ago that continued last night, and which appears more deeply mired in the conflict by the day. But as yet there are no signs of remorse.
Ouattara had long tried to distance himself from the northern-based rebels who fought a brief civil war almost a decade ago that split the country. Those fighters were accused of many atrocities at the time. But he appeared to change tack as the rebels, which he renamed the “Republican Forces”, began their lightning assault against Gbagbo.
Ouattara has promised human rights violations will be investigated and culprits punished, irrespective of their allegiance. Apollinaire Yapi, a spokesman for his military commander Guillaume Soro, said: “There are accusations of abuses here and there. Mr Ouattara has said they have to be condemned, whoever did them.
“It has been reported in the west that there was a massacre. There will be an investigation into who did what, be it a group close to Ouattara’s forces or Gbagbo’s forces. Before this investigation, no conclusions can be drawn.”
Yapi defended the conduct of Ouattara’s troops. “Our forces are not engaged in any abuses. It might be individuals who did this or that. It is of great concern to Mr Ouattara. He doesn’t want his term of office to be spoiled by these abuses. Whoever is responsible will be punished.”
Human Rights Watch has been leading calls for Ouattara to take a firm stand. Its Ivory Coast researcher, Matt Wells, said he should still be given the benefit of the doubt.
“For us, the question of his legitimacy depends on whether he fulfils his promise to open a credible investigation into atrocities on both sides,” he said.
“It has to include prosecution of those who have committed atrocities and commanders who have overseen them. Since he has been saying the right things, he deserves the first chance to show that there will be a credible investigation. If not, then international justice mechanisms take over.”
Hamadoun Touré, a spokesman for the UN mission in Ivory Coast, said: “We are still investigating the level of the atrocities committed during the last four months. A comprehensive report will be published at the end of the exercise.”
Gbagbo’s forces have been implicated in abuses since the post-election crisis began, Wells added, whereas Ouattara’s are more directly linked to the military campaign in the west. “You wouldn’t necessarily equate the two but the abuses by Ouattara’s troops are racking up. It’s an impossible exercise to work out the numbers on each side.”
Wells did not blame the UN for failing to intervene. “It’s a very difficult situation for the UN. They are targets themselves. They have been quite pro-active in investigating these cases – they sent a team to the west straight away. There’s very little to criticise harshly on the UN side. Hopefully their newest peacekeepers will be deployed to the most vulnerable areas.”
The US has also praised Ouattara’s stance so far. “We salute President Ouattara’s affirmation of the need for credible investigations of abuses perpetrated by any party, and welcome his commitment to govern for all Ivorians,” said Mark Toner, acting deputy spokesman for the state department.
The UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, raised the issue of civilian deaths with Ouattara and a senior aide to Gbagbo when he was in Ivory Coast last week.
Ouattara subsequently appeared on national television and urged his supporters, as well as all other Ivorians, to refrain from committing crimes or acts of vengeance, and said that those who had done so would be punished.
But Antony Goldman, a west Africa analyst at London-based PM Consulting, said the situation might be beyond the control of both leaders. “The main regret has to be from all those who allowed this crisis to become a catastrophe. There was an absence of any intervention after the election to resolve this, particularly from the African Union,” he said, adding: “The absence of leadership in the first three months of this year in Ivory Coast has created all the conditions for this kind of violence. It’s gone beyond Gbagbo and Ouattara. The violence is so polarising and there’s no sense on either side of any middle ground.”
A recurrent aspect of the violence has been the use of mercenaries from Liberia, believed to have been recruited by both sides in the conflict.
The two presidential rivals are now in a standoff from their respective headquarters in Abidjan: Gbagbo in his bunker at the presidential residence defended by around 1,000 men, Ouattara in the Golf Hotel under UN protection.
The hotel came under attack late on Saturday and one peacekeeper was injured. UN spokesman Hamadoun Toure said rockets and mortars landed in the hotel grounds shortly after UN forces were attacked nearby. One peacekeeper was evacuated to hospital with serious injuries.