The United Nations human rights office said today that its investigators have found more than 100 bodies over the past 24 hours in three different towns in strife-torn Côte d’Ivoire, with some of them appearing to be ethnic killings.
As more killings come to light, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay condemned the series of vicious attacks on civilians. “The reports that the UN human rights team in Côte d’Ivoire are sending back are utterly horrifying,” she said in a news release. “They are finding more bodies every day.”
Staff from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) saw 15 new bodies in Duékoué yesterday, in addition to the 229 already found and buried, bringing the total number to 244 known for sure to have been killed during an incident that took place between 28 and 29 March.
Rupert Colville, OHCHR’s spokesperson in Geneva, told reporters that the victims are believed to have been mostly or all of Guerre ethnicity. The Guerre have traditionally been supporters of Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power despite the UN-certified victory of Alassane Ouattara in November’s presidential run-off poll.
“The killings took place when fighters who support President Ouattara took control of Duékoué,” he stated. “Some of the victims seem to have been burnt alive, and some corpses were thrown down a well.”
This incident followed an earlier one in mid-March when another 100 people of the Dioula ethnicity, including some women, were reportedly killed by pro-Gbagbo forces who were in control of Duékoué at that time.
The human rights team also found around 40 corpses in the small town of Blolequin, to the west of Duékoué.
“The perpetrators are said to have been Liberian militias, who spared the Guerre from other groups after separating them out,” said Mr. Colville, adding that the town’s population has all fled, and there has clearly been a lot of looting.
In the nearby town of Guiglo, investigators saw more than 60 corpses, including a number of West Africans. OHCHR has also been receiving reports of smaller-scale killings in other towns and villages which are still to be investigated.
Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonovic, who has been in the country for several days now, met yesterday with Mr. Ouattara and two of his ministers and discussed the killing of civilians at length. He also spoke by phone with a senior aide of Mr. Gbagbo.
Last night Mr. Ouattara appeared on national television and urged his supporters, as well as all other Ivorians – to refrain from committing crimes or acts of vengeance, and said that those who had done so would be punished.
Ms. Pillay welcomed his statement and his commitment to set up a truth and reconciliation commission, and urged him and his new administration to redouble their efforts to halt all killings and human rights violations.
“The first priority is to do everything possible to stop further killings and violations,” she stressed. “But equally important is to end impunity in Côte d’Ivoire.”
Speaking on behalf of the Security Council, Néstor Osorio, the Permanent Representative of Colombia, which holds the Council’s rotating presidency for April, expressed grave concern over continuing “loss of life and attacks on civilians” in Côte d’Ivoire and called for dialogue. He told reporters that the “the great difficulty is the absolute reluctance of Mr. Gbagbo to recognize the legitimacy of Mr. Ouattara.”
In a related development, the five-member UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries discussed recent events in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya and warned today that mercenaries are still very active in Africa where they have been recruited to attack civilians.
“The issue of mercenaries is still alive,” said the Group’s Chair-Rapporteur, José Luis Gómez del Prado, at the end of the group’s 12th session in Geneva, where it examined country situations involving the use of mercenaries. “We are especially concerned about the reported involvement of mercenaries in serious human rights violations,” he stressed.
Yesterday UN relief chief Valerie Amos sounded the alarm about the humanitarian situation inside Côte d’Ivoire, saying emergency aid is needed now to help hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the deadly violence that has engulfed the West African country.
The heaviest fighting is now focused on the commercial capital, Abidjan, where pro-Gbagbo forces are concentrated. The UN peacekeeping mission (UNOCI) is carrying out ground and air patrols to try to protect civilians and to respond to requests for assistance from journalists and foreign nationals.
Alain Le Roy, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, told reporters in New York that despite the fact that forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo approached UNOCI on Tuesday saying they wanted to negotiate a peaceful solution, this has not happened.
Instead, the very next day, pro-Gbagbo forces started shelling the UN headquarters in Abidjan again as well as the civilian population. “They are clearly using the lull of Tuesday as a trick to reinforce their position,” Mr. Le Roy said after his closed-door briefing to the Security Council.
UN aid officials have estimated that up to 1 million Ivorians have been displaced by the violence, with some internally displaced and others forced to flee into neighbouring countries, particularly Liberia which is hosting 135,000 Ivorians.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported today that thousands of refugees continue to pour into neighbouring countries, with close to 150,000 Ivorian refugees now spread across 12 countries in West Africa.
The agency noted that the ongoing fighting in Abidjan is driving more civilians into exile in Ghana. Some 2,000 Ivorians have crossed into Ghana in the last week, bringing the total there to 7,200. Further east of Côte d’Ivoire, some 200 Ivorians have been arriving daily in Togo in recent days, bringing the total there to 2,300.