The death toll from the post-electoral violence that has gripped Côte d’Ivoire continues to rise, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the West African nation reported today, while warning that systematic attacks on civilians could constitute crimes against humanity.
“The total number of deaths since mid-December 2010 is now more than 462,” Guillaume Ngefa, the deputy head of the human rights division of the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), told a news conference in the commercial capital of Abidjan.
The country plunged into turmoil late last year after then incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo lost a UN-certified and internationally recognized election to opposition figure Alassane Ouattara in November. Mr. Gbagbo has refused to step down and his supporters have been waging a campaign of violent intimidation of their political rivals.
Mr. Ngefa said that the violence perpetrated in one week against the civilian population in certain neighbourhoods in the north of Abidjan has resulted in 52 deaths, including five children and seven women, as well as dozens of injured.
In New York, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos voiced serious concern about the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Côte d’Ivoire, particularly over the past month.
“The escalation of violence and use of heavy weaponry, particularly in urban areas, is taking an increasing toll on civilians,” said Ms. Amos, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.
She also voiced concern about the increasing targeting and harassment of immigrants from other parts of West Africa, thousands of whom are fleeing the country, as well as the destruction of civilian property and the ongoing harassment and obstruction of aid workers.
“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.
Highlighting some of the recent violence, Mr. Ngefa said the neighbourhood of Abobo had been bombarded with rockets by elements of the Ivorian Defence and Security Forces (FDS), and that the rockets had killed 19 people on the night of 17-18 March.
“The FDS, supported by young militias, invaded Adjamé, Attécoubé, Williamsville and Yopougon, firing and launching grenades indiscriminately on civilians they suspected of being pro-Ouattara,” said Mr. Ngefa.
He added that Akekoi village, considered to be a pro-Gbagbo bastion in Abobo with the majority of its residents being of the Attié ethnic group, was attacked by armed youths. “At least one civilian was killed during the attack,” he said, adding that isolated cases of post-electoral violence had also been reported in Sinfra and Agboville.
“People in Abobo, Williamsville, Yopougon and other neighbourhoods in Abidjan continue to leave in huge numbers because of the fighting and the lack of access to food and medicines,” said Mr. Ngefa, echoing the assessment given just days ago by the UN refugee agency.
During the weekend and on Monday, monitors with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) saw thousands of people trying to leave from Adjamé and Yopougon bus terminals in Abidjan. An estimated 300,000 people in Abidjan are displaced, many of them former residents of Abobo, according to the agency.
Mr. Ngefa reminded FDS officials, elements of the “Commando invisible” and other actors in the post-electoral crisis that systematic attacks against civilians could constitute crimes against humanity.
UNOCI, in accordance with its mandate to protect civilians, is continuing to provide support to the population, through patrols, medical assistance and monitoring and reporting of human rights violations, he added.
The 9,000-strong UNOCI has been supporting the stabilization and reunification efforts in the country over the past seven years following the end of the civil war that in 2002 split the country into a Government-held south and a rebel-controlled north.