ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — French troops clashed with forces supporting Ivory Coast’s strongman on Monday, a day after U.N. and French helicopters fired rockets on Laurent Gbagbo’s residence in retaliation for attacks on U.N. personnel and civilians.
Witnesses in Abidjan’s Plateau neighborhood said they saw French vehicles marked with the flag and French soldiers clashing with pro-Gbagbo forces around the presidential palace.
An Associated Press reporter saw a column of 25 military vehicles including tanks and armored personal carriers leaving a French army base Monday morning.
Also Monday, residents of the Cocody neighborhood said they saw forces fighting to install internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara clashing with Gbagbo’s forces. Gbagbo has continued to cling to power from within a bunker in his residence in the Cocody neighborhood.
The clashes came after Ouattara called for banks and businesses to reopen after weeks of fighting in the commercial capital. However, it did not appear that banks heeded the call.
The head of the United Nations and French President Nicolas Sarkozy authorized the Sunday strikes that continued late into the night, accusing Gbagbo of continuing to use heavy weapons against civilians in his bid to hang on to office more than four months after losing the presidential election.
“We are satisfied because the Gbagbo residence is a headquarters, and it is from this headquarters that shots from heavy weaponry are being fired,” Jean-Pierre Mignard, a lawyer for Ouattara, told Europe-1 radio. “Gbagbo is in the process of creating a situation of civil war to make the situation impossible.”
Gbagbo has lost control of virtually the entire West African country over the last two weeks as forces loyal to internationally recognized winner Ouattara have swept down from the north and west into the commercial capital of Abidjan.
U.N. and French forces then joined the effort, and a first round of U.N. and French airstrikes destroyed much of his arsenal of tanks, mortars and other heavy weapons.
Forces loyal to Gbagbo had been encircled at the presidential residence but broke out on Saturday, ambushing a patrol of pro-Ouattara soldiers and advancing downtown. Pro-Gbagbo forces also attacked U.N. headquarters on Saturday and again on Sunday, and also have attacked the hotel where Ouattara’s administration is based.
On Sunday, residents from nearby neighborhoods reported seeing two U.N. Mi-24 attack helicopters and a French helicopter open fire on the residence, where Gbagbo is holed up in a bunker. The residents couldn’t be named for fear of reprisals.
An Associated Press reporter saw the helicopters take off from the French military base followed minutes later by explosions coming from the direction of the residence. Successive waves of French helicopters took off from the base in the following hours and additional bombardments could be heard.
Gbagbo has been living in a bunker in his residence in Abidjan for a week. After a decade in power, he refuses to step aside even though the United Nations has ruled that he lost the November election to Ouattara.
Pro-Ouattara forces began an offensive late last month to install him in power, sweeping across the country in just days before meeting resistance in Abidjan. Human Rights Watch has accused the pro-Ouattara forces of killing hundreds of civilians, raping political opponents and burning villages during the offensive to try to put Ouattara in office.
“Everyone here is traumatized. We’ve all lost something — a member of the family, our homes, our belongings,” said Philomene Houe, a 39-year-old soap maker in Duekoue, a town in the country’s southwest where hundreds have been killed in post-election violence.
“While the international community has been focused on the political stalemate over the presidency, forces on both sides have committed numerous atrocities against civilians, their leaders showing little interest in reining them in,” said Daniel Bekele, Human Rights Watch Africa director.
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris and Michelle Faul in Duekoue, Ivory Coast contributed to this report.