UN condemns mortar attack on Ivory Coast market

AP News
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Posted: Mar 18, 2011 5:05 PM
UN condemns mortar attack on Ivory Coast market

The mortar shell landed just feet (meters) from Sidibe Siaka as he and his seven close friends were eating lunch at their usual spot in their Abidjan neighborhood. Within minutes, all of his friends were dead.

"God has spared me," said the 55-year-old tile salesman, as he pulled his friends' blood-spattered slippers from the rubble on Friday, a day after Ivory Coast's worst single attack in its growing political crisis.

Thursday's attack by the army still loyal to former president Laurent Gbagbo left at least 25 people dead and drew condemnation from the U.N., which said it could be a crime against humanity.

The U.N. said in a statement that at least six 81 mm mortar shells were fired from a military base located inside Abobo in the direction of a crowded market. At least 40 people were wounded.

"Such an act, perpetrated against civilians, could constitute a crime against humanity," the U.N. said in a Friday statement.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said that investigators from her office visited Abobo and found mortar shells in a number of houses and in the local market.

"Shelling impacts were visible throughout the market and at least three houses were destroyed. My mission collected photographic evidence of the damage caused as well as physical evidence of shell remains. Between 20 and 30 persons were killed and between 40 and 60 others were wounded," she told reporters during a stop in Dakar, Senegal.

"It's a serious situation, and I think it does amount to, it may well amount to, crimes against humanity," she said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the U.N. Security Council to "take further measures with regard to the Ivorian individuals who are instigating, orchestrating and committing the violence," said U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky.

Gbagbo denied his forces were involved. He instead suggested that the U.N. was conspiring against him.

"We think the U.N. is desperately looking for a pretext for a military intervention, like in Libya," said Gbagbo spokesman Ahoua Don Mello.

Just after midday, shells fell without warning on a market in front of the mayor's office in Abobo, a district held by fighters loyal to the internationally recognized president, Alassane Ouattara. At one market stall, an elderly woman lost both legs, a witness said.

One resident, Magoman Kone, said she fled her market stall when policemen drove by the marketplace firing their machine guns into the air. She came back when the firing stopped to gather her wares _ and then the mortar shells started falling.

"There was no warning," said Kone, 55, holding up the casing from a 50-caliber machine-gun bullet, as thick as a spent toilet-paper roll. "Just boom, boom, boom."

On Friday, wounded people lined up outside a local hospital. Foreign health workers refused to say how many patients they had seen.

Ouattara's government called the attack "unimaginable" in a statement released late Thursday. They said more than 40 people died, though this could not be independently verified.

The attack also drew condemnation from the British government.

"I utterly condemn the indiscriminate killing of more than 25 people in Abobo yesterday by forces loyal to former President Gbagbo," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague. "The launching of mortars into a market place and bus station is abhorrent and the U.N. should conduct a full investigation."

The violence has also drawn the interest of the Hague-based International Criminal Court, which said they are monitoring events closely. Rights groups also condemned the attack.

"To launch an attack of this kind that kills and injures a large number of people who are not posing an immediate threat is completely unacceptable," said Veronique Aubert, Amnesty International's Africa deputy director.

Abidjan, Ivory Coast's biggest city, has for weeks seen daily battles that have left hundreds dead. Fighting was initially confined to pro-Ouattara neighborhoods but has now spread across the city, breaking out in different locations each day.

In Abobo, Siaka seemed stunned as he viewed the damage, answering a reporter's questions with only short replies. The shrapnel had ripped through the tin roof which shaded his lunch spot, perforating it with a thousand holes. They cast spots of light down onto Siaka's face as he turned around and around, as if he were still looking for his missing friends.

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Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Anne Look in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.