UN mission deploys troops to Ivorian church to protect civilians seeking refuge

31 March 2011
Some of the thousands of Ivorians who have fled the Abobo neighbourhood of Abidjan by foot

The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire has deployed troops to a key town in the country’s west to protect an estimated 10,000 civilians seeking refuge at a church amid mounting international concern about the humanitarian situation in the West African nation.

The internally displaced persons (IDPs) sought shelter at a church in Duékoué earlier this week as the town became engulfed in fighting between forces backing Alassane Ouattara, who won the UN-certified and internationally recognized presidential run-off election last year, and the forces behind Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the poll but has since refused to step down from the presidency.

The UN mission, known as UNOCI, dispatched a team yesterday to both Duékoué and Yamoussoukro, the capital, to see how the UN can help IDPs and other civilians caught up in the increasingly heavy violence in those areas. Yamoussoukro has reportedly been captured by the pro-Ouattara Forces Républicaines this week.

“The humanitarian situation is dramatic and every day that passes the suffering of the population increases,” said Hamadoun Touré, a spokesperson for UNOCI, in a briefing to journalists in Abidjan, the country’s largest city.

Up to 1 million people have been displaced by the violence that has swept the divided country since the disputed election last November, and top UN officials have warned of a deepening humanitarian crisis in Côte d’Ivoire. Many people have fled to neighbouring Liberia, putting a severe strain on that country’s resources.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported today on a “mass exodus” of residents of Abidjan, with many telling agency staff they feared that major fighting would soon break out in the city.

About 50,000 people are estimated to have been displaced this week just in the area in and around Duékoué, according to the UN.

Mr. Touré said UNOCI’s priorities are to prevent or deter atrocities from being committed against civilians, regardless of their political leanings, ethnicity, religion or region, and to alleviate the suffering of the IDPs.

Y.J. Choi, the mission’s head and the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, secured the release of a priest who had been detained by the so-called Invisible Commandos, a pro-Ouattara armed group based in Abidjan, from the Anyama neighbourhood and 150 priests from the parish of Abobo.

Mr. Choi is also in touch with all the parties to the fighting in a bid to find a resolution to the crisis, while UNOCI military forces are carrying out regular ground and air patrols in Abidjan and other at-risk areas in an attempt to prevent further attacks against civilians. Nearly 500 people are confirmed to have been killed so far in the post-election unrest.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today voiced his concern about the rising violence, stressing it was essential for all sides to the fighting to meet their responsibility to avoid harming civilians.

“Those responsible for inciting, orchestrating or committing human rights violations will be held accountable under international law,” he said in a statement issued by his spokesperson, adding that all parties must allow aid workers immediate access to people in need.

“The Secretary-General urges all to exercise maximum restraint, refrain from exacting revenge and place the interests of the whole nation above all else. He calls on former President Laurent Gbagbo to immediately cede power to President Ouattara to enable the full transition of State institutions to the legitimate authorities.”

Yesterday members of the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution urging Mr. Gbagbo to step aside and imposing targeted sanctions against him, his wife and key associates.



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