Ivory Coast: reprisals feared as pro-Ouattara forces march on Abidjan

Forces loyal to president-elect Alassane Ouattara took Ivory Coast’s administrative capital Yamoussoukro and principal port San Pedro on March 31, and are currently moving on Abidjan, the country’s principal city—where rumors are flying about the imminent fall of Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power. Ouattara, the internationally recognized president, said Gbagbo would not be harmed if he agreed to leave. Civilian residents throughout Abidjan, however, do not have such assurances.

“We are already seeing a lot of car thefts and looting,” a resident of the commercial capital’s Abobo district told the UN news agency IRIN. He said post-battle reprisals could be vicious, particularly in the Yopougon district—large sections of which are inhabited by pro-Gbagbo youth. “They burned our people alive there and there is a natural desire for vengeance.” Referring to a longtime pro-Gbagbo militant and youth leader commonly accused of inciting violence, he added: “If I myself saw BlĂ© GoudĂ© I would want to kill him for the things he’s done.”

Burning people alive—including in front of one’s family members—has become widespread in Abidjan, residents say. “Reprisal attacks are already happening,” a resident in AdjamĂ© district told IRIN. “Here in AdjamĂ© we live with pro-Gbagbo militants. Every morning we see bodies riddled with bullets.”

Gbagbo militants have long been ready to kill anyone dubbed pro-Ouattara, a Yopougon resident told IRIN. “The easiest way to make trouble for someone in a [pro-Gbagbo] neighborhood is to denounce the person as a rebel. That will draw a crowd straightaway and the person can easily be set on fire.”

Just days ago, the pro-Gbagbo Jeunes Patriotes were calling for mass mobilization and a fight to defend Abidjan together with Gbagbo-loyalist troops. Now pro-Ouattara militants have the run of the Gbagbo strongholds of Koumassi and Yopougon districts. The situation is bringing back memories of the Ivory Coast’s civil war for many residents. A Yopougon resident ruefully recalled the events of 2002 when the rebel “Forces Nouvelles” (FN) made their first incursions. “People have very bad memories of 2002 ad the stories of violence from people fleeing the rebel-held areas.”

Pro-Gbagbo forces have especially been attacking immigrants from other West African countries. Human Rights Watch says armed uniformed men shot nine West African immigrants at a police station on March 29, killing six of them. One Burkina Faso man among the three survivors told HRW the assailants asked “Are you brothers of the rebellion?” In an apparent reprisal a week earlier, 37 West African immigrants were murdered by pro-Gbagbo armed men after rival forces passed through their village in the west. “Now more than ever the UN has to step up to the plate and protect civilians,” HRW senior Africa researcher Corinne Dufka told IRIN.

The UN Operation in CĂ´te d’Ivoire (UNOCI) is doing what it can “to minimize civilian victims” in the ongoing fighting, spokesperson Hamadoun TourĂ© told IRIN. ONUCI currently has around 10,000 troops in Ivory Coast. “The challenge is we need to be everywhere at once, which of course is impossible. We are overstretched and there are countless violent attacks.” He said thugs are pillaging throughout Abidjan. “They are going house to house and attacking people.”

Amid intense speculation about Gbagbo’s whereabouts, Ouattara announced a curfew throughout the city. UN agencies say at least 460 people have been killed in violence since November’s disputed elections, and up to one million have fled their homes. (IRIN, Radio Australia, March 31)

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