Misery afflicts Ivory Coast's west after killings

AP News
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Posted: Apr 10, 2011 3:36 PM
Misery afflicts Ivory Coast's west after killings

Guards closed and padlocked the gate at the Roman Catholic mission where hundreds of children carrying tin plates lined up for their only meal of the day, rice cooked in fat. The food had run out.

A girl put her empty bowl on her head. Tears welled in the eyes of a young boy as the truth settled in: No food tonight.

"We fed 2,177 children before the food ran out, but there are more than 3,000 of them," said the Rev. Cyprien Ahoure, a priest at St. Theresa of the Baby Jesus, which has become a refuge for some 30,000 people fleeing violence in Ivory Coast's west.

Inside the overcrowded compound, a woman sobbed in despair, shoving her face into the shoulder of an older man. The woman's husband and all three of her sons were among hundreds killed here two weeks ago.

Forces loyal to Ivory Coast's democratically elected president have killed hundreds of civilians, raped his rival's supporters and burned villages during an offensive to try to put Alassane Ouattara in office, Human Rights Watch said.

The rights group called on Ouattara to investigate and prosecute abuses by his forces and those supporting his rival, strongman Laurent Gbagbo. Forces loyal to Gbagbo have killed more than 100 civilians in retaliation, it said.

Holed up in a bunker in his residence in Ivory's Coast's biggest city, Abidjan, Gbagbo has refused to step aside even though the United Nations has ruled that he lost the November presidential election.

"While the international community has been focused on the political stalemate over the presidency, forces on both sides have committed numerous atrocities against civilians, their leaders showing little interest in reining them in," said Daniel Bekele, Human Rights Watch Africa director.

On Sunday, pro-Ouattara fighters manned roadblocks in Duekoue's Carrefour neighborhood, armed with automatic weapons, shotguns, hunting rifles and knives. Nearby were the charred shells of homes and mounds of fresh orange earth covering the mass graves of the dead.

Residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch described how pro-Ouattara forces "summarily executed and raped perceived Gbagbo supporters in their homes, as they worked in the fields, as they fled, or as they tried to hide in the bush," the group said in a report obtained by The Associated Press.

Many of the abuses occurred last month as villages in the west, including Duekoue, Toulepleu, Doke, Blolequin and Guiglo fell to pro-Ouattara forces, the group said.

The attacks came in waves as the pro-Ouattara fighters advanced against an army and militias fighting for Gbagbo.

On March 27, residents said heavy gunfire erupted around Duekoue, set in the middle of lush tropical forest in the southwest corner of Ivory Coast.

"They came into our neighborhood on a Monday. That day they were searching out and killing young men and boys _ with guns," Philomene Houe, a 39-year-old soap maker, said of the pro-Ouattara fighters.

"It wasn't until Tuesday that they started killing everyone _ mothers with children. My neighbor on one side, a young woman, was shot along with her 6-month-old baby. My other neighbor, an old man who must be 70 years old, they also shot him," she said.

By Wednesday, Houe said, the machetes came out, perhaps because the pro-Ouattara fighters were running low on ammunition. "They were slitting people's throats, anyone _ men, women, children," she said.

Many victims were targeted for their ethnicity, including the area's predominantly Guere population, Christians who largely supported Gbagbo in the election.

Houe, who is Guere, said she escaped with her three children because she spoke the pro-Ouattara fighters' Malenke language.

"Everyone here is traumatized. We've all lost something _ a member of the family, our homes, our belongings," she said.

Virginie Glazie, a 30-year-old mother of seven, said she was so traumatized that she gave birth prematurely on March 29.

"She just lies there. She has no strength," she said of her tiny daughter. "My milk has dried up because I am so traumatized."

Houe and other residents said fighters from the Muslim Djoula tribe also were responsible for atrocities, emerging from the forest on March 31 and killing Christian Guere in intercommunal violence that is common in this area.

An officer with the pro-Ouattara force defended his fighters.

"Soldiers have not come here to create ethnic problems, we are all Ivorians," said Lt. Siloue, who would only give his surname.

He said people were running around in uniforms posing as soldiers from the pro-Ouattara force and were responsible for the killings of at least nine men in Guiglo.

In recent weeks, a pro-Gbagbo militia had also been targeting Ouattara supporters, refugees told the AP.

"To understand the tragic events in Ivory Coast, a line cannot be drawn between north and south, or supporters of Gbagbo and Ouattara," said Human Rights Watch's Bekele. "Unfortunately, there are those on both sides who have shown little regard for the dignity of human life."