UN: Up to 1 million flee Ivory Coast violence

AP News
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Posted: Mar 25, 2011 12:00 PM
UN: Up to 1 million flee Ivory Coast violence

With possessions balanced on their heads, about 1,000 people frantically crowded around buses rented by Mali to evacuate its citizens Friday from Ivory Coast, as the U.N. said up to 1 million have fled their homes amid fears of civil war.

More than 2 million Malians live in neighboring Ivory Coast, and human rights groups say the foreigners are facing growing threats of violence as the Ivorian political crisis intensifies. Evacuation efforts have been hampered by a lack of buses so far.

"700 today. 700 tomorrow. Everyone who wants to leave will be able to as long as I'm here," said Hamet Diawara, president of the council of Malians in Ivory Coast.

Incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo has refused to cede office despite his rival Alassane Ouattara being recognized by the international community as the rightful winner of November's presidential election. Pro-Gbagbo forces have attacked foreigners from the region whose countries have supported Ouattara.

At least 33 citizens of Burkina Faso have been killed while another 35 are missing, said Albert Ouedraogo, the chairman of the Tocsin, the main diaspora association, from the Burkinabe capital.

"We're afraid. Everyone's leaving," said Abdias Goita, a father of two who sat patiently in the shade next to the Malian buses. "My brother had his door broken down by pro-Gbagbo militias. He gave them all the money he had _ about 200,000 francs ($430) _ but they slit his throat anyway."

Armed youth manning makeshift roadblocks have sprung up around the city. Activists accuse them of stopping and searching all cars, sometimes beating and killing those with foreign-sounding names.

"I'm of Malian origin, but I was born here," said one woman, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. "Now, because of the election ... we are forced to leave, to leave the place where we were born and where we grew up."

The United Nations said Friday that up to 1 million people have fled their homes to safer areas.

"The massive displacement in Abidjan and elsewhere is being fueled by fears of all-out war," Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters in Geneva.

Among those who have fled the fighting are at least 500,000 children, said aid group Save The Children in a statement released Friday.

"We spoke to one boy who had to travel through the forest in Abidjan to get to safety, because there was too much fighting in his old neighborhood," said Giuliano Vascotto, the organization's director of operations in Ivory Coast.

"A seven-year-old girl we spoke to walked with her family through the bush to get to safety, carrying her belongings in a bag and her little brother on her back," he said.

The closure of banks and businesses is causing economic chaos in the already impoverished West African country, Fleming said. Unemployment is rising, as are food prices.

On the main road between Abidjan and the border with Ghana, an AP cameraman saw hundreds of vehicles backed up more than 9 miles (15 kilometers) waiting to cross over.

Fleming said previous estimates had put the number of displaced in the whole country at 500,000, indicating a sharp rise in recent days.

The global body is concerned that the fighting could spread to neighboring Liberia, which itself is recovering from years of conflict. Fleming said there are indications that Liberian mercenaries are arriving in Ivory Coast through the countries' porous 435-mile (700-kilometer) border.

The U.N.'s human rights office said at least 462 people have been killed in fighting since December, with at least 52 killed in the past week.

The Geneva-based office also has received unconfirmed reports of 200 foreigners being killed in the west of the country, said spokesman Rupert Colville.

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Associated Press writers Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.