As forces loyal to Ivory Coast's internationally-recognized leader, Alassane Ouattara, prepare the final assault into Abidjan to oust the incumbent government under Laurent Gbagbo, United Nations peacekeepers in the city are increasingly coming under fire.
Though the U.N. mandate does not specify removing Gbagbo from power, the peacekeeping forces have the authority to respond to attacks against the U.N. or civilian personnel. At least 9,000 troops are stationed in Ivory Coast, also known by the French name Cote D'Ivoire.
The United Nations Operation in Cote D'Ivoire (UNOCI) reports that at least 20 of its troops have been wounded by gunfire since the recent conflict began in the French-speaking nation.
Water has reportedly been cut off at the U.N. headquarters in the economically-vital city of Abidjan. Some 200 employees of its staff were evacuated on Sunday after repeated attacks by Gbagbo supporters.
"We are planning action; we can no longer condone their [Gbagbo forces] reckless and mindless attack on civilians and the United Nations blue helmets with heavy weapons," said Choi Young-jin, representative of the U.N. Secretary General in Ivory Coast, in an interview that was broadcast on BBC.
"We are now in a way under siege, so we cannot go out freely; [they are] targeting us with snipers; it's a deliberate shoot at United Nations," Choi continued. "We will be using our air assets; we will be taking action soon."
Ukraine has provided an aerial arsenal that includes Mi-8 and Mi-17 utility helicopters as well as three heavily-armed Mi-24 attack helicopters. Throughout the standoff, the attack helicopters painted in U.N.-white have been used to mount patrols in an attempt to deter further attacks.
France, the former colonial master of Ivory Coast, seized Abidjan's airport after pro- Gbagbo loyalists surrendered to U.N. peacekeepers. The airport is now being used to evacuate foreign nationals, and to allow France to reinforce its existing military contingency with 300 troops.
Roughly 12,000 French citizens are currently under protection in three locations that include a French military camp in Port Bouet. The French military mission has been in the country since the previous civil war in 2002.
Both Gbagbo and Ouattara forces have been accused of committing atrocities since the recent crisis started.
Last week, the western Ivory Coast town of Duékoué became the site of a massacre in the rebel advance toward Abidjan. It is not certain which of those killed represented civilians or actual combatants. A U.N. report on Saturday roughly estimates that 330 people died, with more than 200 killed by Ouattara fighters and 100 killed by Gbagbo loyalists. However, Caritas, a Catholic charity organization, says that its staff counted nearly 1,000 bodies in Duékoué.
Ouattara, who is currently under U.N. protection at Cote Golf hotel in Abidjan, denied responsibility for the atrocities in a statement, claiming his forces found mass graves left by Gbagbo forces in towns throughout the country. Should a subsequent investigation implicate his forces in civilian deaths, Ouattara may lose his otherwise stellar international standing. How much control he actually has over his fighters remains unclear.
Once seen as a beacon for prosperity in West Africa, the Ivory Coast fell into political turmoil during a 2002 civil war that challenged Gbagbo's rule. Ouattara emerged as the opposition's leader, representing the interests of poorer northerners in addition to that of foreign laborers from cocoa and coffee plantations.
Fighting mostly ended by late 2004 under a U.N.-brokered peace agreement, but the country was divided between a rebel-held north and a pro-Gbagbo south. UNOCI was formed around this time.
Hopes for stability were placed in the presidential election in November 2010, which was the first in a decade after Gbagbo took power. The incumbent leader had previously continued to delay elections. The vote favored Ouattara, and the results were recognized by the United Nations, the European Union, African Union and the United States.
But a new crisis emerged after Gbagbo refused to step down, a move that was condemned worldwide. Once an opposition leader himself, Gbagbo holds a personal grudge against Ouattara who was Prime Minister under then president Félix Houphouet-Boigny in the 1990s. Together with his wife, Gbagbo had been imprisoned.
Xenophobia and ethnic divide defined tensions that pit nationalistic southerners against northern Ivoirians descended from Mali and Burkina Faso immigrants. The crisis came to bear in late March, when Ouattara supporters launched a full-scale offensive in a bid to oust Gbagbo.
Some of the heaviest fighting has been concentrated in Abidjan, where Ouattara fighters clashed repeatedly with government forces and militias. The opposition claims that Gbagbo supporters are behind assassinations, beatings and abductions directed against Ouattara's supporters. Last Thursday, the main opposition force reached the outskirts of Abidjan.
"The strategy was to surround the city of Abidjan, which we have succeeded in doing," said Guillaume Soro, Ouattara's prime minister, on Ouattara-controlled television station TCI. "We have sent soldiers to the center of town to harass Gbagbo's troops, militia and mercenaries."
As world leaders condemn the violence, evangelicals are urging Christians to pray for peace in the Ivory Coast.
"Evangelical missionaries have worked in Ivory Coast since the 1920s, planting churches and supporting schools, hospitals and other social ministries," said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
"Our hearts go out to the people of Ivory Coast who desperately want peace, and especially to those who have lost loved ones in the recent fighting."
After winning independence from France in 1960, the Ivory Coast experienced a miraculous economic growth. It currently provides a third of the world's cocoa stock, which has been a bargaining chip for both presidents.
Evangelical leaders express hope that Gbagbo would honor the wishes of the international community to ensure stability in the region.
"Scripture calls us to pray for our leaders and all who are in authority," Anderson said in reference to the 2010 election results. "I am praying that President Gbagbo will step down gracefully for the good of his country and for the peace of the entire region of West Africa."