Ivory Coast: The final battle

April 6, 2011 - 0:0

Responsibility to protect loomed large in the debate about intervening in Libya, but was long curiously absent from Ivory Coast. There, a large modern city with 4 million inhabitants was running out of food and water; looters roamed the streets; and a UN peacekeeping force was -- until Monday night -- sidelined to the role of outraged observers. In the end, a final assault by the presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara on the city of Abidjan began when French helicopters opened fire on a military camp of forces loyal to the former president Laurent Gbagbo. In this act, both the UN force and the supporting French one moved to centre stage.

This is not without its risks. Any move by the armed forces of a former colonial master carry the charge that the clock is being turned back and a new puppet is being installed. Until now French forces were only there to protect French nationals, and they also took over the airport.
However, the conflict had probably gone too far, and France claimed it was responding to the request of the UN secretary general to neutralize the heavy weapons belonging to Gbagbo's troops. As Gbagbo spent months resisting calls from the African Union to honor the result of an election which he lost and step aside, much of the blame for Ivory Coast's relapse into civil war rests squarely on his shoulders. But not all.
The “New Forces” of Mr. Ouattara contain some elements of older militias who also have blood on their hands. The International Committee of the Red Cross stuck by its claim that about 800 were killed when Mr. Ouattara's forces swept through the town of Duekoue, and an account of the aftermath by the BBC's Andrew Harding makes disturbing reading. Mr. Ouattara's government blamed the UN for withdrawing its forces when the fight for the town took place. As Mr. Ouattara and his cabinet-in-waiting owe their survival to UN troops guarding them at a hotel, they should at least take responsibility for the behavior of their troops. They should be told international support is contingent on correct behavior.
The besieged inhabitants of the Golf hotel have been unable to protect even the homes of their relatives, which have been targeted by Gbagbo's elite paramilitary force, Cecos. Now the situation is reversed, rebel forces have a responsibility to uphold the basic rules of warfare, such as protecting the lives of noncombatants, and taking combatants prisoner where possible. As firing could be heard from the direction of the presidential palace last night, it can only be hoped that the final battle is brief and that Gbagbo's troops seeing the writing on the wall, which had somehow eluded the gaze of their master.
Photo: Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo