'War crimes by both sides in I Coast'
Abidjan - An international rights group says in a Thursday report that 13 military leaders from both sides of Ivory Coast's political divide committed war crimes during months of postelection violence in the West African nation, and called on the government to prosecute all suspects equally.
Human Rights Watch also warned that the government's failure to charge anyone loyal to President Alassane Ouattara over their acts during the six months of violence was setting the stage for "victor's justice".
Ivory Coast's justice minister praised part of the report, but said there is no proof to support charges that officials loyal to Ouattara committed crimes.
Human Rights Watch says the military leaders led troops to execute civilians and rape women during the violence that followed former strongman Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to cede power after losing a November poll.
The New York-based group says the group of 13 comprises eight military leaders from Gbagbo's regime, four from Ouattara's side, and one who was not formally aligned with either side.
The four military leaders alleged to have carried out war crimes on Ouattara's side are still commanding troops. The report says Ouattara promoted one of them, Commander Cherif Ousmane, as second-in-command for presidential security.
The International Criminal Court received authorization earlier this week to open an investigation into possible war crimes in Ivory Coast. The United Nations and other rights groups have said both sides committed violations.
Justice Minister Jeannot Ahoussou Kouadio praised the report but questioned the allegations against those loyal to Ouattara.
Notorious youth leader
When asked about the report's claim that forces loyal to Ouattara could have also killed civilians he said: "They have witness statements, but prove it."
He also said Ousmane "fought on the good side of the conflict" and credited him with opposing pro-Gbagbo militias.
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 500 people during six field missions to the country to compile the report.
Kouadio added that authorities are investigating reports of killings in the capital and in the country's west.
Local prosecutors have brought charges against at least 118 Gbagbo allies, both civilian and military, but authorities have not yet charged anyone from Ouattara's side.
"What looks to be right now one-sided or victor's justice, is a real threat to the reconciliation that the country is trying to go through right now. It is only through impartial justice that the country will move forward from this most recent state of violence and reestablish the rule of law," Human Rights Watch researcher Matt Wells said.
Among others named in the report is notorious youth leader Charles Ble Goude, a Gbagbo ally for whom Ivory Coast's state prosecutor has issued an international arrest warrant. His whereabouts are unknown.
"Ble Goude is one of those most responsible for postelection violence through his routine inciting to violence, inciting to hatred that took place, as well as just his role as the leader of the [Young Patriots] militia," Wells said.
The rights group also says the Gbagbo-loyal state television station incited violence against pro-Ouattara groups and exhorted followers to denounce "foreigners", a term used broadly for over a decade to marginalise immigrants and people from the country's north, like Ouattara.
"The Ouattara government has taken noteworthy steps to prosecute leaders of the former regime, including Gbagbo himself, against whom there is credible evidence of serious crimes," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "But the pursuit of justice is essential to victims on both sides who saw their loved ones killed, or houses burned, not just a tool for the victors."