DUEKOUE, Ivory Coast (AP) — A group of traditional hunters known for policing western Ivory Coast is now being implicated in a gruesome attack on a camp for displaced people, where at least six residents were killed after an angry mob set tents ablaze.
The hunters — known as dozos — have long partnered with local authorities to combat banditry. However, the government has long vowed to disarm them and they have been accused of a growing number of human rights abuses.
Cedric Besai, 12, says he spotted dozos — recognizable by their dreadlock wigs and traditional clothing — among the fighters during Friday's attack on the camp.
"They had machetes, Kalashnikovs and wood for burning," said Besai, whose family gathered at Duekoue's town hall on Sunday with more than 100 other former residents of the attacked camp. "They were very strong, and they started attacking the place."
A U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because an investigation was not yet completed, said the dozos' complicity was clear.
"There's no doubt about the involvement of the dozos," the official said. "That's for sure."
On Sunday, the camp that was once home to 4,500 people was deserted, its grounds marked by the charred remains of tents and other structures. Strips of tarpaulin hung over the frames of structures that were still standing.
"The dozos came early in the morning and encircled the camp, said Marguerite Guei. "All the dozos were posted at all the strategic places at the camp — some with Kalashnikovs and some with traditional hunting rifles," the 35-year-old said.
But Bala Dembele, head of the dozos in Duekoue, denied that the group carried out the attacks. He said an angry crowd attacked the camp, thinking that the perpetrators who had shot dead five people the night before had sought refuge there.
"We intervened to stop the demolition of the camp, but the crowd was so stirred up that we couldn't," he said.
A spokesman for the defense ministry, Allah Kouakou Leon, said the dozos had helped prevent violence from spreading. "It's clear that they played a very important role that day by their interference," he said.
Widely believed to possess mystical powers, dozos are respected by many but they have increasingly come under fire, accused of widespread extortion at unsanctioned roadblocks.
They have also been implicated in more severe crimes. The U.S. State Department's most recent Human Rights Report says dozos committed ethnic reprisal killings during the violence that rocked Ivory Coast after the disputed November 2010 election. Some 3,000 people were killed in the violence before ex-leader Laurent Gbagbo was removed from power with the help of U.N. and French forces in April 2011.
The new government under President Alassane Ouattara had vowed to disarm the dozos but a June 30 deadline passed with no tangible progress.
Matt Wells, West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, suggested the government was slow to act because the dozos had sided with pro-Ouattara forces in the postelection conflict against forces loyal to Gbagbo, the ousted president.
"The dozos' apparent involvement in the Nahibly camp attack shows the failure of Ivorian authorities to follow through on repeated promises to disarm this group and lays bare the cost of the continued impunity for pro-government forces," Wells said.
But some military officials have credited them with helping to stabilize the region. Dozos were originally concentrated in northern Ivory Coast. They expanded their presence to the west well before the 2010 vote, filling a void left by state authorities who failed to maintain security.
A 2010 Human Rights Watch report describes how dozos partnered with a transport workers' union to curtail banditry on the country's roads. Many villages around Duekoue entered into "self-defense agreements" with the dozos, compensating them for policing villages and providing armed defense.
Now, however, residents in the west, especially those belonging to ethnic groups that generally sided with Gbagbo in the postelection conflict, say they fear the dozos. And their suspected involvement in Friday's attack, described by a number of witnesses, has raised more accusations about their use of violence. The attack killed six people, including one elderly man who was unable to flee and burned to death in a tent, according to the U.N.
Iro Firmin, a resident of the razed Nahibly camp, said Friday's attack was part of a broader campaign of aggression against the Guere, a mostly pro-Gbagbo ethnic group.
"During the attack the dozos came and stole everything from the camp," he said. "Their plan was to exterminate all Guere in the camp," he claimed.
The attack was prompted by the shooting deaths of four men and one woman — members of a group that largely supports Ouattara — on Thursday night, according to local officials and residents. The mob of some 300 locals descended on the camp Friday morning after the perpetrators of the shootings reportedly fled there.
Ndolamb Ngokwey, humanitarian coordinator for the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast, said Sunday he could not address allegations that dozos played a role in the attack, citing an ongoing formal investigation.
At a meeting with U.N. officials on Sunday, army chief of staff Soumaila Bakayoko vowed to press forward with the disarming of the dozos. Still, Ngokwey said any promises to disarm the dozos would mean little without concrete action.
"The government already took a decision on that," Ngokwey said, "but it is the implementation of the decision that is proving tricky."