The conflict in the Ivory Coast between incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and the Western-backed winner of the November election, Alassane Ouattara, has been simmering for several months and has exploded in serious violence with the deaths of protesters in March. Now, the United Nations and aid groups say that the country is in a state of civil war after hundreds of civilians were massacred in Duékoué, a town in western Ivory Coast.
Workers for a Catholic charity described the horrific scene. “The town was full of bodies,” said a spokesman. “They saw bodies in the city, in the bush, mass graves.” UN forces are now guarding the thousands of civilians who took refuge in a church. According to the New York Times, the conflict between Gbagbo and Ouattara has unleashed “long-standing ethnic rivalries,” which has led to further violence. The death toll is currently around 350, but aid agencies have estimated that it could be much higher. Some workers said that they saw “at least” 800 bodies.
Disturbingly, most of the civilian casulaties were killed by Ouattara’s fighters. The massacre raised questions about how much control Ouattara has over his troops, especially as he began a final push against the Ivory Coast’s capital, Abidjan. Ouattara’s forces are primarily comprised of rebels from a 2002 uprising and have a history of human rights abuses. Needless to say, Ouattara has been the target of questions from the United Nations, and even more predictably, Ouattara has denied that his fighters were involved.
The French sent extra troops to Abidjan and took control of the airport. The city’s pro-Gbagbo television station subsequently called for citizens to mobilize against the French “occupation.” The French said that their troops’ primary mission was to protect French nationals, who were being threatened. There is, however, no current plan to begin evacuating foreigners.
The country is quickly sliding into further violence as Ouattara launches a “rapid offensive” against Abidjan. According to the BBC, many residents of the city are trapped indoors without food or water, and a group of journalists were fired on as they tried to drive into Abidjan. Citizens have been encouraged to come out and form a human shield around Gbagbo’s residence.
Since violence seems to be escalating, it’s crucial that no more innocent civilians die in the power struggle between Gbagbo and Ouattara.
Photo from Flickr.