As many as 1 million people have been driven from their homes in Côte d’Ivoire in the months-long turmoil stemming from the outgoing president’s refusal to leave office, with violence mounting and his loyalists using heavy weapons against civilians, a top United Nations official said Friday.
“The deteriorating security situation and the escalation in the use of heavy weapons has had a serious toll on the lives and well-being of the Ivorian people,” Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Atul Khare told the Security Council, ascribing most of the violence to forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, who lost a UN-certified and internationally recognized election to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara last November.
“The human rights situation is very grave, with a high number of human rights violations reported,” he said of the violence that has beset Abidjan, the commercial capital, and the western regions as a result of Mr. Gbagbo’s refusal to respect the results of a democratic election that was meant to reunite a country split by civil war in 2002 into a Government-held south and rebel-controlled north.
“The massive displacement in Abidjan and elsewhere is being fueled by fears of all-out war,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a news briefing in Geneva today. “This week, we have seen panic in Abidjan as thousands of youths have responded to the call for civilians to join the ranks of forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo.”
Showing slides, Mr. Khare detailed some of the worst attacks of the past three months, including an attack by pro-Gbagbo security forces loyal using heavy machine guns against a group of women demonstrating peacefully in Abidjan’s Abobo neighbourhood in support of President Ouattara, killing seven and seriously wounding many more.
In another instance Gbagbo loyalists fired several mortar shells into an Abobo market, killing more than 25 people and wounding more than 40 others. In all, 462 people have been killed since violence erupted in September. More than 93,000 people have fled across the western border into Liberia, while up to 1 million others have been internally displaced, Mr. Khare said.
Just yesterday UN peacekeepers, intervening in Abobo where Gbagbo loyalists were raining mortars down on civilians, opened fire, putting the attackers to flight. The 9,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), which has been supporting the stabilization efforts over the past seven years, is mandated to protect civilians.
Earlier this year the Security Council not only rebuffed Mr. Gbagbo’s demand for its withdrawal but also authorized the immediate deployment of 2,000 additional troops and three armed helicopters.
Gbagbo loyalists continue to obstruct UNOCI’s activities by blocking access and attacking personnel, Mr. Khare said. The mission has increased the number of patrols in vulnerable neighbourhoods, is arranging for round-the-clock patrols in Abobo, and is conducting aerial surveillance of Abidjan and the rest of the country. “We believe these measures have prevented further killings,” he added.
He also noted reported attacks by President Ouattara’s supporters, including an alleged assault by so-called “invisible commandos” in which 5,000 people were driven from their homes outside Abidjan.
He warned that an $87 million appeal for aid in Côte d’Ivoire and five neighbouring countries to face a potential major humanitarian crisis was seriously under-funded, “hampering the ability of the United Nations to provide much needed services to those forced to flee their homes.
“Access to those impacted by the ongoing crisis remains a serious concern. It is essential that all sides allow unhindered access for humanitarian actors to reach those in need,” he added.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said today it had received reports, as yet unconfirmed, that an additional 200 nationals of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), including people from Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea and Togo, had been killed in the Guiglo area in western Côte d’Ivoire. ECOWAS supports Mr. Ouattara.
“In general, we are extremely concerned about the worsening situation, particularly given the continuing incitement by the outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo,” OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville told a news briefing in Geneva.
The UNHCR office in Guiglo was attacked and plundered on Wednesday and three vehicles, two motorbikes and all office equipment and furniture were stolen. “We condemn this plundering of our premises and reiterate our call to all parties to protect civilians and refrain from any further deliberate targeting of humanitarian organizations,” Ms. Fleming said, noting that vehicles were also stolen from several other humanitarian agencies in the area.
The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council today decided to send an independent international commission of inquiry to Côte d’Ivoire to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding allegations of serious rights abuses.
Yesterday, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos voiced serious concern over the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation. “I call on those involved in the violence to respect civilians, including aid workers, and to allow rapid, safe and unimpeded access by humanitarian organizations,” she said.