Ivory Coast violence escalates

2011-03-18 12:56

The Ivory Coast crisis escalated today after a massacre of up to 30 civilians blamed on forces loyal to strongman Laurent Gbagbo triggered UN fears of crimes against humanity.

The United Nations roundly condemned the attack yesterday on innocent civilians who are increasingly bearing the brunt of a stand-off for the presidency, claimed by both Gbagbo and internationally recognised winner Alassane Ouattara.

“It’s quite difficult to avoid the conclusion it is a crime... possibly a crime against humanity,” said Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.

Gbagbo’s government has denied carrying out the shelling of civilians, denouncing the accusations as a “conspiracy”.

Residents today reported more gunfire in Abobo, Abidjan’s most populated suburb, where the massacre took place.

“Yesterday at around midnight we heard shooting from heavy weapons. We got under the bed, on the floor, out of fear of being killed,” said one resident.

Several witnesses confirmed the shooting, however there was no report on casualties.

In recent days violence has surged in the world’s top cocoa producer, raising fears of a growing humanitarian crisis amid the political stand-off as thousands flee the fighting.

Since Monday, fighters backing Ouattara have tried to move south from Abobo, infiltrating neighbouring suburbs and drawing fierce resistance from pro-Gbagbo troops.

UN spokesperson Hamadoun Toure said a UN team which visited Abobo yesterday “could see that the armed forces of president Laurent Gbagbo fired at least six missiles on the market and surrounding areas, causing the death of 25 to 30 people and injuring between 40 and 60”.

He said the 10,000-strong UN mission in Ivory Coast, known as Unoci, “expresses its indignation in the face of such atrocities against innocent civilians. The perpetrators will not go unpunished”.

Once seen as the economic miracle of west Africa and a beacon of stability in a troubled region, Ivory Coast was plunged into turmoil after an attempted coup in 2002 against Gbagbo.

Since then the north of the country remains controlled by pro-Ouattara former rebels, who have in recent days captured large parts of the country’s unstable west bordering Liberia.

November presidential elections were meant to bring a definitive end to the country’s woes, however the crisis deepened as Gbagbo refused to cede power to his rival. Mediation efforts have so far failed.

Last week the African Union endorsed Ouattara’s presidency, a decision rejected outright by Gbagbo whose regime is being choked by international sanctions, according to the UN who has also suggested he is starting to lose military support – which the strongman vehemently denies.

On Tuesday Ouattara gave a televised address to the nation in which he urged his rival to seize a “last chance” to exit the presidency peacefully. State media have been heralding an expected address by Gbagbo to the nation, however no date or time has been set.

The UN mission updated its death toll to 410 yesterday, before the Abobo attack.

The European Union’s emergency aid commissioner yesterday urged the world not to overlook the humanitarian crisis in Ivory Coast, which she says exceeds that in Libya, and has put the west African nation “on the brink of civil war”.

The UN estimates that more than 400 000 people are on the move – 200 000 displaced from Abidjan alone, and 80 000 having already crossed into Liberia and Guinea.

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