Saturday, April 2, 2011

Hundreds Killed in Ivory Coast Massacre

 Laurent Gbagbo
 As rebels swept across Ivory Coast in a rapid advance to oust the nation’s strongman, Laurent Gbagbo, hundreds of people were killed in a single town last week, by far the worst episode of violence reported in the four-month political crisis that has plunged the country back into civil war.
The exact number of dead was unclear. The United Nations said Saturday that 330 people had been killed, while the International Committee of the Red Cross put the death toll at 800 or more.

The Red Cross did not say who was responsible. But the United Nations said that more than 100 had been killed by Mr. Gbagbo’s fighters, while about 200 had been killed by forces loyal to his rival, Alassane Ouattara, the man recognized by the United Nations, the African Union and other international bodies as the winner of the presidential election last year.

Mr. Ouattara’s government issued a statement denying responsibility for atrocities in any part of the country, saying its forces had discovered mass graves in other towns that were the result of massacres by Mr. Gbagbo’s forces.
Throughout most of the crisis, civilian deaths have largely come at the hands of Mr. Gbagbo’s forces, eliciting threats of charges from international prosecutors. Human rights groups have also accused forces loyal to Mr. Ouattara of some extrajudicial killings, but neither side has been implicated in a massacre even close to this scale. The total death toll previously estimated by the United Nations was about 500, over four months of tensions and sporadic violence.
The conflict between Mr. Ouattara and Mr. Gbagbo has unleashed longstanding ethnic rivalries, particularly in the lawless western regions of the country. On Saturday, the I.C.R.C. said that the large number of bodies it saw in the town of Duékoué on Thursday and Friday were apparently victims of “intercommunal violence.” But it did not assign responsibility for the killings.

The Red Cross team “saw a very large number of bodies,” said a spokeswoman, Dorothea Krimitsas. “They were shocked by the scale of it. We don’t have exact information as to who is behind this. There were at least 800.” The Red Cross said that it had taken 28 bodies to the local morgue, and it that was continuing its investigation.
Duékoué is one of the strategic towns in the country’s cocoa-growing region seized by forces loyal to Mr. Ouattara last week. Many of the fighters are former rebels from a 2002 uprising that divided the country in half. The rebels have a history of human rights abuses and had largely stayed on the sidelines of the political crisis.
But with Mr. Gbagbo refusing to step down — despite international condemnation, sanctions and a collapsing economy — the rebels pushed across the country in a rapid sweep last week, advancing all the way to encircle the presidential palace and Mr. Gbagbo’s residence in the nation’s main city, Abidjan.

United Nations peacekeepers are stationed at Duékoué, but it was unclear what knowledge, if any, their base might have had about the mass killings.

Still, the station has been one of Mr. Gbagbo’s most powerful weapons in a nonstop campaign to fire up supporters with claims that he is the victim of a Western conspiracy, and both sides have waged a fierce battle for it.

“They are protecting the Catholic mission” where thousands of civilians have taken refuge, said a United Nations spokesman, Hamadoun Touré. “They didn’t tell me anything. If they knew they would have told us,” he said. “In general when there is fighting, there are incidents. Sometimes, there are exaggerations.”

In Abidjan, which is also the country’s commercial capital, of gunfire and artillery exchanges rocked the city on Saturday as Mr. Gbagbo stiffly resisted efforts to dislodge him.

Mr. Gbagbo’s loyalists retook the state television station, though Mr. Ouattara’s military spokesman dismissed the significance of its retaking. “What is preoccupying us is the liberation of the people of Abidjan,” said Capt. Léon Alla. “Not the R.T.I., which is nothing but propaganda,” he said, referring to Radio Télévision Ivorienne.

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