Enough was enough. The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast (Unoci) had been taking a hammering in recent days. Its base was attacked with heavy weapons, the office of its mission chief hit by sniper fire, and 11 of its peacekeepers shot. It was only under such provocation that the mission finally decided to strike back.
For months Unoci has been pinned down in its base, forced to watch as Ivory Coast slid into civil war, with seemingly little will — or ability — to intervene. The International Crisis Group criticised Unoci for being “unable to implement its mandate to protect civilians subjected to violence or the threat of violence”.
As in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere, the 9,000 peacekeepers have simply lacked the manpower to prevent widespread atrocities over a vast area. They can only return fire when they are shot at.
On a visit last month, I met Unoci peacekeepers from Bangladesh, Jordan and Togo and pilots from Ukraine. Press conferences are held in a prefab building on the hillside U.N. base; we emerged from one to hear the distant report of gunfire.
One of Unoci's most important roles has been the protection of the Golf hotel, where Alassane Ouattara and his government-in-waiting have been holed up for four months. In the hotel grounds I saw peacekeepers sprawling in hot and humid tents, and several white armoured U.N. vehicles, one of which had a hotel branded umbrella perched above it. The mood was passive, not active.
The scene was altogether less serene for Unoci patrols in central Abidjan, which have been under frequent attack from Laurent Gbagbo's forces.
The rebel offensive against Abidjan in recent days broke the impasse. Mr. Gbagbo turned his guns on the Unoci base and 170 civilian staff were evacuated. Eleven peacekeepers have been seriously wounded by gunfire. It was no wonder the mission chief, Choi Yong-jin, warned that they were at “breaking point”.
So on Monday the organisation adopted an unusually robust posture. Unoci and French helicopters fired on Mr. Gbagbo's presidential palace and military barracks. Unoci claimed it launched the campaign to “neutralise” the heavy weapons that Mr. Gbagbo's special forces had been using against the civilian population, destroying them in four locations.
Mr. Choi has claimed: “Unoci's military impartiality is one of the cornerstones of its existence in Cote d'Ivoire.” But there is no doubt that Monday night's offensive may have handed a swift victory to the U.N.-backed President Ouattara. So far this appears to have been far less controversial than the intervention in Libya, presumably because the African Union has endorsed Mr. Ouattara too.
— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011