1,000 innocents die in Ivory Coast slaughter
THE single biggest atrocity in the long and bloody battle for control of Ivory Coast emerged yesterday after aid workers discovered the bodies of up to 1,000 people in a town.
Charity workers who reached Duekoue said it appeared that the killings had taken place in a single day, shortly after the town fell to troops loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the man internationally recognised as having won last year's presidential election.
The apparent massacre came despite the presence of United Nations troops. It will cast a shadow over Mr Ouattara's assumption of the Ivory Coast's presidency after a four-month battle to oust Lawrence Gbagbo, the former president who lost the November election but refused to step down.
The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) said its staff discovered more than 800 bodies of local civilians. They were mainly men who had been shot, either alone or in small groups around the town.
Patrick Nicholson, a spokesman for Caritas, the Catholic charity, said his team had counted 1,000 bodies, adding that some had been hacked with machetes.
Last night the UN said that it already logged 430 killed in Duekoue and was still investigating reports of more dead in the town.
Fighting in Abidjan, the economic capital, appeared to be reaching a bloody climax this weekend and there were predictions that the compound occupied by Mr Gbagbo would be overrun within the next 24 hours.
Even though most of his military chiefs have abandoned him in the past week, the 65-year-old remained defiant, with friends saying he would rather die than admit defeat. Mr Ouattara has instructed that Mr Gbabgo be taken alive if possible, to ensure that he is made to answer publicly for his refusal to step down from power, leading to the deaths of 492 people on both sides -- even before the Duekoue killings.
The ICRC said it had been told by locals that intercommunal violence erupted soon after Mr Ouattara's forces took control of the town on Monday. Thousands of people left their homes to escape the fighting and an estimated 40,000 sought refuge in a nearby Catholic mission's compound.
The bodies are thought to be those people who did not reach the sanctuary in time. They were killed despite 200 UN troops operating what it said were "robust" patrols from its base on the outskirts to protect civilians in and around the church.
Hamadoun Toure, the UN spokesman in Ivory Coast, said it had warned both sides fighting in the town that they would be held responsible for any atrocities committed, but said UN troops "were not aware" that civilians were being attacked and killed.
Ivory Coast is the world's largest cocoa producer and as the gateway to the crop's heartlands, Duekoue was a strategically vital prize. But there are tensions between nationalistic Ivory Coast natives and those descended from people seen as "foreign" settlers, mostly from neighbouring countries.
Mr Gbagbo's support came from the more nationalistic south but Mr Ouattara, himself the son of immigrants, won 54 per cent of votes cast in an election which was internationally judged to be broadly fair.
Some victims in Duekoue appeared to have been killed by mercenaries from neighbouring Liberia, reported to have been fighting for both Mr Gbagbo and Mr Ouattara.
The Ouattara camp was urgently trying to distance itself from involvement in any of the new deaths. A spokesman said the government "firmly rejects accusations and denies any involvement" in possible abuses.
Apollinaire Yapi, an adviser in Mr Ouattara's camp, said his troops had been warned not to engage in revenge attacks.
"If there are some people among us who are responsible for any breach of the law, they will be punished. We have to investigate exactly what happened."
Mr Ouattara's forces continued to attack Mr Gbagbo's residence and the presidential palace yesterday in Abidjan after entering the city on Thursday.
Gun battles between the two sides have resulted in most of the city's five million residents being too terrified to leave their homes.
Mr Yapi predicted that Mr Gbagbo would be captured shortly and put the delay down to Mr Ouattara's insistence that he be taken alive, and for casualties to be kept to a minimum.
"We don't want to kill the man, he must be tried for all he has done," he said. "If he dies, he becomes a martyr."
Guy Labertit, one of Mr Gbagbo's closest friends and a member of France's Socialist Party, said he had spoken to him on Thursday and he had made clear he would not leave.
"He will not resign and he will not come out alive," he said.