Gbagbo men push back forces loyal to Ouattara

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The UN and France stepped up their intervention in the Ivory Coast crisis yesterday launching air strikes on the hideaway of Laurent Gbagbo, the ex-president who has refused to resign despite losing elections four months ago.

As the sun set in the commercial capital Abidjan, heavy weapons fire could be heard throughout the city. Forces loyal to Mr Gbagbo have pushed back against those of his opponent and election winner, Alassane Ouattara, over the weekend, firing on the Abidjan hotel where the former economist is running his shadow government.

Mr Gbagbo, a 65-year-old former history professor, has retreated underground to a bunker beneath his presidential residence but international hopes that he would surrender or that his troops would abandon him have withered. With a protracted battle for Ivory Coast's commercial capital a strong prospect, the UN and French peacekeeping forces have become increasingly strident in their support of military efforts to oust Mr Gbagbo.

Two UN helicopters and one French one took off yesterday afternoon from the French military base near the airport, according to witnesses. Residents in the Cocody area of Abidjan, where the Ivorian leader is hiding, later reported three helicopters firing rockets at his compound.

As the helicopter sortie returned at dusk last night, long volleys of machine gun fire echoed around the lagoon city. A spokesman for Mr Gbagbo later said that his residence had been "partially destroyed" but refused to confirm whether the leader was in it.

"UN and French helicopters continue to fire at President Gbagbo's residence which has been partially destroyed," a senior aide to Mr Gbagbo, Ahoua Don Mello, said by phone. "There is thick smoke coming from it, but we have no other details on the damage."

After 10 years in power, the former favourite with the French socialists who was once described by late president Francois Mitterand as "one of our own", Mr Gbagbo has made himself an enemy of France. After weeks of strident anti-French rhetoric, his forces reportedly fired mortars and rockets at the French ambassador's residence on Friday.

The renewed fighting has scotched hopes from the Ouattara side that their opponent could be contained behind a military cordon while normal life resumed in the rest of the city. The former IMF economist has appealed for banks to be reopened and an international embargo to be lifted so normal life can be resumed.

However, the international favourite has been hit with claims by the UN that his forces took part in atrocities in the west of Ivory Coast in this month's military offensive.