UN chief Ban Ki-moon insisted helicopter raids by UN and French forces in Ivory Coast were to defend civilians and were not a declaration of war against strongman Laurent Gbagbo.
Ban said in a statement that he had ordered the UN mission in Ivory Coast, UNOCI, to start “a military operation to prevent the use of heavy weapons which threaten the civilian population of Abidjan”.
UN and French attack helicopters fired yesterday at military camps loyal to Gbagbo and the presidential palace and residence where he is believed to be based.
Armed men yesterday kidnapped several people, including two French nationals, from the Novotel hotel in Abidjan, the French foreign ministry said.
About 1900 foreigners are under French military protection in the city and 447 have already left Ivory Coast, the spokesman for French forces in the country said.
“There are currently 1900 foreign citizens at Port-Bouet (the French military base in Abidjan) and since Sunday 447 have already left,” the spokesman for the French military force Licorne (Unicorn), Frederic Daguillon, said.
About four or five people were kidnapped, a diplomatic source added separately.
“We confirm the kidnapping by armed men of several people, including two French nationals, at the Novotel hotel in Abidjan this afternoon,” foreign affairs spokesman Bernard Valero said.
“We are mobilised and our embassy is doing everything possible to find the kidnapped individuals.”
According to French radio Europe 1, the French kidnap victims were the director of the hotel and a businessman.
The kidnappings happened several hours before UN and French military forces launched operations against military camps for troops for outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo, the presidential palace and his residence.
Several hundred people have been killed in the Ivory Coast conflict since a bitterly disputed presidential election in November.
Forces loyal to internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara now say they have the main city Abidjan surrounded.
Gbagbo’s forces have been accused of killing civilians and attacking UN peacekeepers.
Ban said intense fighting in recent days was “a direct consequence of Mr. Gbagbo’s refusal to relinquish power and allow a peaceful transition” to Ouattara.
Ban accused Gbagbo forces of having “intensified and escalated” the use of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-guns against civilians.
They had also targeted the UNOCI headquarters in Abidjan “with heavy-caliber sniper fire as well as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.” Four peacekeepers have been wounded, he said.
“Furthermore, forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo have attacked UNOCI patrols dispatched to protect civilians and convoys transporting wounded in Abidjan, resulting in several more wounded peacekeepers,” added the statement.
But the UN leader insisted the 11,000 peacekeeping force did not have orders to bring down Gbagbo.
“Let me emphasise that UNOCI is not a party to the conflict,” Ban said. “In line with its Security Council mandate, the mission has taken this action in self defense and to protect civilians.”
Ban made an urgent request to France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday for help to launch the rare UN military operation.
“It is urgent to launch necessary military operations to put out of action the heavy arms which have been used against the civilian population and the peacekeepers,” he said.
Ban asked Sarkozy to give “urgent” approval for joint military operations between the French troops in Ivory Coast and the UN force.
Sarkozy replied that he had authorized military involvement under the mandate given by UN Security Council resolution 1975 which allows French troops in Ivory Coast to help UNOCI to protect civilians.
“I consider, like you, that the protection of civilians threatened in Ivory Coast is an urgent necessity, parallel to political efforts by the whole of the international community aiming to resolve the current crisis,” Sarkozy’s letter said.