ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — The United Nations and French forces opened fire with attack helicopters Monday on the arsenal of Ivory Coast's entrenched ruler, as columns of fighters allied with his challenger finally pierced the city limit.
The fighters aiming to topple strongman Laurent Gbagbo after a decade in power had succeeded in taking nearly the entire countryside in just three days last week, but they faltered once they reached the country's largest city, where the presidential palace and residence are located.
Monday's offensive marked an unprecedented escalation in the international community's efforts to oust Gbagbo, 65, who lost the presidential election in November yet has refused to cede power to Alassane Ouattara, 69, even as the world's largest cocoa producer teetered on the brink of civil war.
The postelection violence has left hundreds dead — most of them Ouattara supporters — and has forced up to 1 million people to flee.
On Monday, U.N. forces fired on the Akouedo military base to prevent Gbagbo's forces from using heavy weapons against civilians, said the spokesman for the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Nick Birnback.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement that he had authorized the 1,600-strong French Licorne force based in Abidjan to help in the operation after an appeal from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
Ivory Coast gained independence from France in 1960, and about 20,000 French citizens lived there when a brief civil war broke out in 2002. French troops were then tasked by the United Nations with monitoring a cease-fire.