Fears that post-election unrest in Ivory Coast will explode into all-out war have spurred up to 1 million people to flee their homes in the capital Abidjan, the UN refugee agency said today.
President Laurent Gbagbo has refused to cede office despite his rival Alassane Ouattara being recognised by the international community as the rightful winner of November’s presidential elections.
“The massive displacement in Abidjan and elsewhere is being fuelled by fears of all-out war,” Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters in Geneva.
The closure of banks and businesses is causing economic chaos in the already impoverished West African country, she said.
Unemployment is rising, as are food prices, while the capital’s bus terminals are packed with people trying to flee to safer areas in the north, east and south.
Meanwhile, the situation in the west of the country is unclear, with reports that many thousands of civilians there are also fleeing their homes.
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 neighbouring 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 700km border.
The UN’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 has also received unconfirmed reports of 200 foreigners being killed in the west of the country, said spokesperson Rupert Colville.
Drive-by shootings of civilians by Gbagbo and Ouattara supporters are on the rise, Colville said. He added that more than 5 000 young people recently followed a call by Gbagbo to enlist in the army.