ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — More than 500 BM-21 missiles were found Thursday stacked in green wooden crates in the basement of Ivory Coast's Presidential Palace, where foreign leaders had come only weeks ago to mediate a peaceful end to the country's political crisis.
The extent of strongman Laurent Gbagbo's arsenal is now coming into focus as it is discovered in caches around the city, enough military might to wage an extended civil war, had Gbagbo not been captured on Monday.
"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," said President Alassane Ouattara's secretary-general Amadou Gon Coulibaly, referring to the resolution that authorized the U.N. and French helicopters to attack and destroy heavy arms last week.
Pro-Gbagbo soldiers held out for days at the luxurious Presidential Palace in the center of the city, which was only conquered on Wednesday. On Thursday, Coulibaly surveyed the premises and found the arms caches.
In the basement of the palace, an Associated Press reporter counted at least 532 cases of BM-21 missiles, each one more than 8-feet-long. Crates of mortars, grenades and ammunition littered the sprawling gardens and boxes of emergency medical supplies were stacked in an office.
All around Abidjan Thursday, teams of Red Cross workers shoveled charred corpses into bags while U.N. peacekeepers gathered more weapons, throwing them into dump trucks for disposal.
More than a week of heavy fighting turned a city once known as the Paris of West Africa into one of deprivation, fear and death. The urban warfare culminated in the arrest on Monday of strongman Laurent Gbagbo. Now President Alassane Ouattara's first order of business is to get Abidjan functioning again.
"We need to secure the country, notably Abidjan," Ouattara said at his first press conference on Wednesday. "There are still arms caches, but we will get rid of them with our allied forces ... These weapons will be gathered and burned."
Now that fighting has ceased in many parts of the largest city, the people of Abidjan have begun to leave their homes for the first time in over two weeks.
U.N. spokesman Hamadoun Toure said Thursday that dozens of U.N. vehicles went through Abidjan as part of a peace parade led by U.N. peacekeeping mission head, Choi Young-jin to assess security and encourage people to return to normal.
More than 1 million civilians fled their homes amid the fighting, which also completely shut down the economy of the cocoa-producing powerhouse.
Oxfam's humanitarian manager in Liberia, where around 135,000 Ivorians have fled, said many refugees are too afraid to return home anytime soon.
A coalition of aid agencies on Thursday said the West African country had descended into a humanitarian disaster with hundreds of thousands at risk without urgent international assistance.
In some areas, violence continued. A resident of Micao in the industrial zone of Abidjan's Yopougon suburb said Thursday that forces fighting for Ouattara, called Republican Forces, were coming to the area at night dragging out people identified as former soldiers in the defeated army that was accused of turning heavy weapons on civilians. They then shot them, the resident said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
She said she had found three bodies in an empty plot near her home, and she knew the dead men as soldiers.
On Thursday, soldiers continued firing into the air to scare people, she said, adding that when people flee their homes are then looted.
On Wednesday, a French patrol stopped at the house of Gbagbo's last prime minister, Ake N'Gbo, and found two cases of rockets, two cases of shotgun shells and two cases of banana-shaped magazines for Kalashnikov assault rifles.
The day before, at a residence nearby, the find had been much larger: more than 500 cases of mines, mortars and .50-caliber machine gun bullets.
"We've found considerable quantities of arms," said Maj. Frederic Daguillon, spokesman for the 1,700-strong French Licorne Force in Ivory Coast. "But it's not us who takes care of them, it's the U.N."
Earlier in the week, Pakistani U.N. peacekeepers arrived at the base of the Republican Guard, Gbagbo's most highly trained and best equipped force. They had to call in a dump truck to haul away piles of AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and ammunition they found lying around after the base was abandoned while French attack helicopters bombarded it.
With giant white flags flying from the backs of their SUVs, Red Cross workers wearing rubber gloves and boots are driving from body to body in Abidjan, carrying out the gruesome task of clearing the streets of corpses that are loaded into a minibus.
One worker grabbed the collarbone of a charred skeleton and another took the hips and lifted the jumble into a black plastic body bag. A third man, wearing a white face mask, scraped up the rest of the remains with a metal shovel.
"We receive calls at our call center telling us where the bodies are," said Franck Kodjo, who led a team that had already picked up more than 20 bodies by midmorning Wednesday from Abidjan's Cocody district alone.
Three separate armies are patrolling the streets of Abidjan: the white jeeps and trucks of the United Nations, the green camouflaged tanks of the French army and the ragtag pickup trucks of the disparate group of former rebels who fought to put Ouattara in power.
All three share the same mission of protecting the population and encouraging a return to normality. The U.N. is primarily concerned with weapons caches, the French with protecting foreigners and evacuating them to their base in the south of the city, and the pro-Ouattara forces seem to be elbowing each other for territory, accusing each other of looting and assuming the mantle of authority they fought so hard to win.
Gbagbo refused to cede power after losing a November election, leading to the standoff that killed untold numbers of people. Gbagbo was arrested by Ivorian soldiers at his home.
Ouattara said on Wednesday that Gbagbo will be kept in a villa and that the justice minister is preparing for his possible prosecution.
Associated Press writer Michelle Faul in Bouake, Abidjan contributed to this report.
(Photo: AP Photo/Jane Hahn)
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