Paris has given the green light for its troops to participate in a UN operation in Ivory Coast aimed at neutralizing incumbent President Gbagbo's heavy weapons. Meanwhile, UN helicopters have fired on Gbagbo forces.
French troops have secured the airport in Abidjan
French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday authorized French troops to take part in a UN military operation in Ivory Coast aimed at taking out the heavy weapons of incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo.
According to a written statement issued by Paris, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requested French military assistance as violence in the war-torn West African nation intensified and threatened to destabilize neighboring countries such as Liberia.
Food supplies are short for the hundreds of thousands of refugees
"The president of [France] responded positively to this request and authorized French forces… to participate in the operations…aimed at protecting civilians," said the statement.
Forces supporting Ivory Coast's internationally-recognized President Alassane Outarra claimed late on Monday that they had taken control of the presidential residence of Gbagbo.
"Now they are conducting search operations in the surroundings of the residence," a spokeswoman told the German press agency dpa.
The European Union issued a statement on Monday evening backing the UN mission to protect civilians.
"I welcome ongoing efforts of the UN mission in Ivory Coast to protect the civilian population in line with the mandate given by the UN Security Council," European Union President Herman Van Rompuy said after talks with African Union Commission President Jean Ping.
The authorization for French troops to become involved came after two French nationals were kidnapped by armed men at the Novotel Hotel in Ivory Coast's main city of Abidjan on Monday. French Foreign Affairs spokesman Bernard Valero confirmed the kidnappings.
Meanwhile, UN helicopters have fired missiles on forces loyal to Gbagbo, according to Nick Birnback, spokesman for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
More French troops
Earlier Monday, France dispatched more troops to protect civilians in Ivory Coast as the battle for control of Abidjan intensified.
Forces backing the Ouattara were said to be preparing for a final assault to remove Gbagbo from power. Gbagbo has refused to accept last November's UN-certified election results which showed that Ouattara won the disputed poll.
The international community has called for Gbagbo to step down
Ouattara's forces marched into Abidjan on Thursday, initially meeting with little resistance. But they came under fire by Gbagbo's roughly 2,500-strong elite Republican Guard, clustered in Abidjan along with remaining regular army troops.
France is considering the evacuation of some 12,200 of its residents from the country. Sarkozy has already issued an order for French citizens in the country to be brought together in single location ahead of a possible repatriation operation.
The French army took control of the country's main airport on Sunday to allow the evacuation of foreigners from the country. The latest deployment brings the number of French troops, in the country as part of a UN peace mission, to 1,650.
Refugee exodus, reports of massacre
A UN official has warned that the conflict in Ivory Coast is severely straining the resources of neighboring Liberia, and he called for more assistance for the country to deal with an influx of refugees.
Forces loyal to Ouattara are gearing up for what they say will be the final assault
The appeal comes as the Roman Catholic Charity Caritas reported at the weekend that more than 1,000 people had been killed in the Ivory Coast city of Duekoue in the last week.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) put the number of dead at 800. "There is no doubt that something on a large scale took place in this city, on which the ICRC is continuing to gather information," said spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas in Geneva. "Everything seems to indicate that this was inter-ethnic violence."
"According to a priest, most displaced people have not eaten in two days and about 80,000 food rations and kitchen equipment are urgently needed," said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for International Organization for Migration.
Fear that violence may spread
Valerie Amos, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said during a visit to the Liberian border region with Ivory Coast that the conflict was putting a severe strain on Liberia, after suffering many years of war itself.
She said the country was just now returning to peace and security and that the new conflict next door was jeopardizing its recovery. The government in the capital, Monrovia, is worried that armed Liberian mercenaries fighting in Ivory Coast, mainly for Gbagbo, could return.
Liberia's 14-year civil war ended in 2003, leaving some 250,000 people dead.
Author: Rob Mudge, Spencer Kimball, Richard Connor (AFP, AP, Reuters)
Editor: Martin Kuebler