100s of rockets found in Ivory Coast palace

AP News
Posted: Apr 15, 2011 1:12 PM
100s of rockets found in Ivory Coast palace

While normal life is slowly returning to Ivory Coast's main city after two weeks of urban warfare, discoveries of massive weapons caches stockpiled by ousted strongman Laurent Gbagbo show the bloodshed could have been vastly worse.

The forces who forced Gbagbo from power this week say the discoveries vindicate their international bombing campaign that deprived him of the ability to use these weapons.

Ministers in President Alassane Ouattara's government toured Gbagbo's abandoned presidential palace on Thursday. The fighters who had captured it the previous day walked them through rooms and hallways filled with more than 500 121mm artillery rockets, capable of leveling buildings and killing hundreds.

Last month, the U.N. Security Council authorized military force to destroy the heavy weapons that Gbagbo's forces had turned on the capital's 5 million people. French and U.N. helicopters bombed Gbagbo's residence and presidential palace as well as military camps around Abidjan this past week. Gbagbo's advisers cried foul, accusing them of attacking nonmilitary targets and trying to assassinate Gbagbo.

But Thursday's discoveries reveal that the former president, who managed to stay in power five years beyond his elected mandate and stubbornly refused to step down after losing last November's presidential elections, was preparing to defend his power at all costs, officials said.

"We have here significant stocks of heavy arms, which shows clearly that the U.N. Security Council resolution was appropriate and that the opportunity was taken to get rid of these weapons," Ouattara's chief-of-staff Amadou Gon Coulibaly said on the steps of the lagoon-side palace.

Gbagbo maintained that he was opposed to war and open to talks right up to the end, but directly beneath the rooms where he met foreign dignitaries and mediators, an arsenal capable of vast destruction was stocked and ready for use.

An Associated Press reporter counted at least 532 green wooden crates with yellow Cyrillic markings on them, each more than eight feet long and containing a single rocket. The count did not include the dozens of smaller boxes filled with grenades, mortars and ammunition. Though the rocket's origin could not be immediately confirmed, weapons expert Christian Bock said they were Katyusha rockets, designed to be loaded 15 at a time into a rocket-launching system called a Stalin's organ. These were meant to be fired from truck-mounted BM-21 launchers, officials said.

"These are highly inaccurate weapons, but are designed to create an enormous 10-hectare (25-acre) kill zone ... to devastate and demoralize land forces," said Bock, a senior adviser at the London-based security consulting firm Avascent International.

Choi Young-jin, chief of the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast, said the rockets could have been used against civilians, or to destroy the entire U.N. headquarters, the Golf Hotel which was the headquarters of Ouattara's government and the French military base.

"The basement of the palace was a warehouse for the weapons and ammunition," he said. "Fortunately we intervened to destroy the BM-21 rocket launchers. That prevented the disaster of Abidjan."

The death toll from the fighting in Abidjan is unknown. Red Cross workers have been removing corpses from the streets this week.

Gbagbo's stubborn resistance was a litmus test on a continent where some 20 presidential elections are scheduled this year and where military strongmen have made charades of elections, imperiling Africa's move toward democracy. The successful people's revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have fomented unrest in pockets of sub-Saharan Africa, with protests from the tiny southern mountain kingdom of Swaziland to central Uganda, where opposition forces say a rigged February election kept the country's leader _ who has already been in power a quarter-century _ in the presidency.

The military intervention here sends a forceful signal.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said dictators should take notice that they cannot disregard "the voice of their own people in free and fair elections." Gbagbo lost presidential elections on Nov. 28. Ouattara was declared the winner by Ivory Coast's electoral council and by the U.N., which was tasked with certifying the election results.

Soldiers defending the palace had held out for two full days after Gbagbo was captured on Monday by Ivorian forces loyal to Ouattara at the presidential residence a few miles away. Maj. Sherif Ousmane, one of Ouattara's top commanders, said that both the palace and the surrounding area were fiercely defended when they were captured on Wednesday.

On Thursday, journalists saw evidence that those defending the palace had stripped off their uniforms, had looted and then deserted their posts. Military fatigues, black boots and riot helmets sat in piles on the lawns and in the sprawling gardens around the palace. Long coils of machine gun ammunition were coiled among empty sardine cans and yoghurt containers.

Many of the tall plate glass windows were shot out.

Inside the palace, a large painting that could have been a Picasso but lacked his signature hung untouched in a stairwell. Every cabinet and drawer lay open and bare. An empty jewelry box sat on a dresser beside an unmade bed in the master bedroom. A suit bag hung in the closet with the golden initials PR written on it for "President of the Republic."

At Gbagbo's desk, four Christian books were perched on top of piles of files, along with CDs of the musician Bi Zoman Fabrice with personal dedications to Gbagbo.

In his final days, Gbagbo concentrated his forces in two places, Choi said Thursday, with 800 around his residence and 400 at the palace.

In addition to the helicopter raids, French forces acting under the U.N. mandate rolled out an armored column of 25 tanks, jeeps and armored personnel carriers on Monday to secure the area around the presidential palace. Then Ouattara's forces arrived at Gbagbo's door, forcing the strongman out of his fortified bunker and arresting his family and an estimated 100 collaborators.

The twisted wreckage of an anti-aircraft gun still sits on the manicured lawn of the presidential palace.

"Only Gbagbo himself can explain what he was going to do with these weapons," Ouattara's commander Ousmane said. "This wasn't a war of one country against another, but a war between Ivorians, and it could have been much worse."