AXIM, Ghana — The United Nations and France went on the offensive Monday against Ivory Coast’s strongman, Laurent Gbagbo, striking targets at his residence, his offices and two of his military bases in a significant escalation of the international intervention into the political crisis engulfing the nation.
France, which showed a newfound muscularity by championing military strikes against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces in Libya, attacked heavy artillery and armored vehicles at Mr. Gbagbo’s residence and presidential offices, two centers of his power, a French military spokesman said Monday night.
The United Nations said it had also launched helicopter strikes against Mr. Gbagbo’s forces at two of his bases, to prevent them from using the kinds of heavy weapons that have been aimed at civilians and United Nations personnel during the crisis.
By early Tuesday, Mr. Gbagbo was in a bunker beneath his residence and was negotiating a possible surrender through the French ambassador, according to Alain Lobognon, a spokesman for the prime minister, Guillaume Soro. Forces supporting Mr. Gbagbo’s rival, Alassane Ouattara, were several hundred feet away.
The international attacks coincided with a renewed assault by local troops loyal to Mr. Ouattara, the man recognized by the United Nations, the African Union and other international bodies as the winner of last year’s presidential election.
With the attacks under way, Mr. Soro, who is Mr. Ouattara’s prime minister, declared Monday that Mr. Gbagbo’s rule was now only hours away from ending.
“Our forces have made significant advances,” Mr. Soro said in a telephone interview. “In a few hours it will be all over. We came into the city of Abidjan today, and I think it will soon be finished.”
International officials have long called on Mr. Gbagbo to step down, but Secretary General Ban Ki-moon took pains to say that the United Nations was “not a party to the conflict.” He said it had taken action only because forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo had used “mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns against the civilian population.”
He also noted that Mr. Gbagbo’s forces had fired on United Nations patrols and attacked the organization’s headquarters in Abidjan “with heavy-caliber sniper fire as well as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades,” wounding four peacekeepers.
France, Ivory Coast’s former colonial ruler, has more than 1,500 troops stationed in the country and played a pivotal role in rallying the United States and its allies to begin airstrikes in Libya last month.
In a statement Monday, France said it had joined the operation in Ivory Coast at the request of the United Nations, with the intent of “neutralizing heavy weapons that are used against the civilian population and United Nations personnel in Abidjan.”
United Nations peacekeepers have traded deadly fire with pro-Gbagbo forces before, but the latest military involvement represented a notable increase in the international effort to force Mr. Gbagbo to step down since losing the election last November.
Still, it also risked bolstering one of Mr. Gbagbo’s most potent propaganda weapons: that he is being singled out by foreign forces, notably the French and the United Nations, in an attack on Ivorian sovereignty. These ideas, repeated nightly for months on state television, have energized thousands of Gbagbo supporters and soldiers, giving them a fervor that they display over and over.
Until now, however, those statements did not bear any similarity with the reality on the ground.
Mr. Soro dismissed in advance suggestions that the French and United Nations offensive amounted to undue foreign interference. “They have a mandate to protect the civilian population,” he said. “Gbagbo has committed many crimes against the civilian population, so this is absolutely appropriate.”
Die-hard loyalist troops have dug in to protect Mr. Gbagbo, a former university historian who has transformed himself into a hard-line autocrat over the course of a long political career.
On Monday, about 2,000 fighters supporting Mr. Ouattara entered the city in a renewed push to oust him, his spokesmen said.
“This is the final assault,” said the spokesman, Apollinaire Yapi. “I would say, this is the general offensive we anticipated. So far, the incursions have been to test Gbagbo’s forces.”
Other Ouattara officials agreed that Monday’s military action added to the pressure on Mr. Gbagbo.
“The Abidjan front has been opened,” said Meite Sindou, an aide to Mr. Soro. “The operations have begun. Very rapidly, we are going to proceed with restoring security to Abidjan.”
As the fighting intensified during Monday’s assault, residents described an intimidating universe of sustained gunfire and loud booms, and a fourth straight day of being unable to venture out.
Some spoke of running out of food. “We’re lying flat; the gunfire doesn’t stop,” said a resident of the Cocody neighborhood, where Mr. Gbagbo lives, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. He was sheltering not only his own five children, but also seven of a relative’s. “It’s very, very tough,” he said.
Mr. Soro said the United Nations and French attacks would curtail the combat: “The election results must be respected. The rule of law must be restored.”
Dan Bilefsky contributed reporting from the United Nations.
Copyright 2011 by The New York Times