ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — United Nations and French helicopters bombed the area around the bunker of besieged strongman Laurent Gbagbo Sunday.
Smoke was seen rising near Gbagbo's residence in the Cocody district of Abidjan Sunday evening after three rounds of bombing by the helicopter gunships.
The heavy weapons in camps around Gbagbo's residence are blamed for firing mortars Saturday at the Golf Hotel in downtown Abidjan, where presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara is based. The hotel is heavily guarded by United Nations peacekeepers, who blamed the Saturday attack on Gbagbo's forces who have regrouped with heavy weaponry near the presidential residence and bunker.
"This was not a fight, but a direct attack by Gbagbo's forces, who fired RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and mortar rounds, from positions near Gbagbo's residence, at the Golf Hotel," said U.N. spokesman Hamadoun Toure in Abidjan Saturday, according to Reuters.
He said one U.N. peacekeeper had been hurt, and that U.N. forces had responded by firing on those positions.
Gbagbo's spokesman Ahoua Don Mello denied that his forces had attacked Ouattara's headquarters but he added that the incumbent leader was calling on his supporters to mount resistance against French forces that have bombed Gbagbo's residence and other military bases in Abidjan.
"President Gbagbo called for resistance against the bombing and the actions of the French army in Ivory Coast, because ultimately it is the French army that attacked us," said Don Mello.
Pro-Gbagbo forces seem to be determined to strike fast, a sign that they want to gain momentum before more troops desert, or that they may be desperate, said Lydie Boka, analyst at StrategiCo consultancy.
"The attack on Ouattara's headquarters have won Gbagbo praise among his supporters but will probably attract more sanctions on him," Boka said, adding that the last big battles would happen soon, even if pro-Gbagbo's backers take time to surrender.
The Sunday bombings by three waves of the French and U.N. helicopters appeared aimed at knocking out Gbagbo's heavy weapons to stop them from being fired on civilian areas. Gbagbo's forces have regrouped and have been fighting in the diplomatic districts of Abidjan surrounding the presidential residence.
"The two areas of Cocody and Plateaux are up for grabs right now," said an Abidjan resident Sunday. "Fighting and gunfire continues."
French helicopters attempted to rescue diplomatic staff trapped by the fighting in Cocody. But gunfire forced the French to halt the evacuations. British and other diplomats were later evacuated, according to Reuters.
Bullets hit the British Embassy and a mortar round crashed into its garden, the BBC reported.
Elsewhere in Abidjan there was a fragile calm Sunday, as civilians went onto the streets, many seeking food and water after hiding in their homes for days. Also the Abidjan port has been reopened as Ouattara attempts to restart Ivory Coast's lucrative cocoa exports after international sanctions designed to prevent Gbagbo from getting that money.
As the battle for Abidjan continues, there are charges that gross human rights violations have been committed across Ivory Coast by both the Gbagbo and Ouattara forces. The New York-based group also alleged that forces loyal to Gbagbo killed more than 100 civilians. Human Rights Watch urged Ouattara, as the internationally recognized leader of Ivory Coast, to investigate and prosecute abuses by all forces.
Gbagbo remains holed up in the bunker of his residence in the Cocody suburb of Abidjan. Despite a call earlier this week by Gbagbo's generals for all their fighters to put down their arms and turn themselves in to the UN peacekeeping force, some 1,000 of Gbagbo's fighters have regrouped in the Cocody area. The U.N. and the U.S. have denounced the move, saying Gbagbo's forces tricked the international community into believing they were surrendering when in fact they were regrouping.
After a decade in power, Gbagbo refuses to accept he lost the November election to Ouattara. After four months of futile negotiations to get Gbagbo to step down, Ouattara ordered military action led by fighters from a former rebel group. Ouattara's forces swept across Ivory Coast, advancing hundreds of miles and taking dozens of cities in a matter of days before meeting resistance from Gbagbo's forces in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's biggest and most strategically important city.