Côte d’Ivoire: UN chief voices concern over worsening violence, urges restraint

UN Blue Helmets on patrol in Côte d’Ivoire

25 February 2011 – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today voiced deep concern over the deteriorating situation in Côte d’Ivoire, deploring recent clashes between rival groups as well as threats against the United Nations, including a call to impede the movement of peacekeepers.

“These developments mark a disturbing escalation which draws the country closer to the brink of reigniting civil war,” Mr. Ban’s spokesperson said in a statement, referring to the armed clashes in Abidjan, as well as the fighting in the west of the country between elements of the rebel Forces Nouvelles and forces loyal to outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo.

Mr. Gbagbo has refused to leave office despite opposition leader Alassane Ouattara’s UN-certified victory in the 28 November presidential run-off. The election was meant to be the culmination of efforts to reunify the country, which was split by civil war in 2002 into a Government-controlled south and a rebel-held north.

The Secretary-General demanded an immediate end to threats against the UN, including the recent call to impede the movement of peacekeepers in Abidjan beginning today, and to the ongoing obstruction of the activities of the peacekeepers, including their efforts to protect civilians.

“The Secretary-General reiterates his call on both sides to exercise maximum restraint and to extend their cooperation to the African Union High-Level Panel. He hopes that the Panel will expedite its discussions and take decisions that will help prevent further violence and facilitate a peaceful settlement to the crisis,” the statement said.

He reminded both the instigators and the perpetrators of acts of violence against civilians and the peacekeepers that they will be held accountable for their actions under international law.

Addressing a Security Council session today on peace and security in Africa, Mr. Ban observed that “time is slipping away” in the search for a solution to the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire.

“If the African Union High-Level Panel does not move decisively to find a solution, all of their work could be overtaken by events,” he said.

“I note with special concern that Mr. Gbagbo’s forces continued to attack civilians and violate human rights even as the Panel made its recent visit,” the Secretary-General added.

The UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) yesterday reported that skirmishes had erupted between elements of the national armed forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo and the Forces Nouvelles in the western Dix-huit Montagnes region.

The mission’s spokesperson, Hamadoun Touré, reported that the clashes could lead to wider armed conflict and a violation of the existing ceasefire. He also said that there had been rising violence in certain neighbourhoods in Abidjan between the military and demonstrators, with the use of heavy weapons and deaths reported

In a related development, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said today that the number of refugees fleeing Côte d’Ivoire rose dramatically this week amid reports of fighting in the west, adding that the nearly 45,000 Ivorians have so far crossed the border into Liberia.

“Until mid-week we were seeing around 100 people crossing the border daily, but over the past 24 hours alone, the numbers coming across have swollen to 5,000 people, according to local authorities,” said UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming, briefing reporters in Geneva.

She said three teams of UNHCR staff were on their way to border crossing points to assess the situation.

“As of today, our most immediate concern is for the 39,000 internally displaced people in western Côte d’Ivoire,” said Ms. Fleming, adding that insecurity has prevented UNHCR from working in the area for several days.

Fighting near the town of Danané yesterday appeared to have triggered the movement of people towards the border with Liberia, she said. Work on a new camp for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Duékoué has been suspended due to the violence, she added.

An inter-agency assessment mission that went to western Côte d’Ivoire last week heard reports of attacks on travellers by armed groups roaming the area, Ms. Fleming said. Several villages have reportedly been attacked and houses razed after they were looted in December and January, she added.

Parts of Duékoué town had also been burned down, leaving people with no homes to return to. With 23,000 IDPs, Duékoué hosts the largest number of IDPs in the region.

The assessment mission heard reports of armed men entering villages on motorcycles and shooting at villagers, killing some.

“We also encountered groups who had been displaced repeatedly. In one village which was attacked in December the entire population fled and sought refuge in religious institutions or with families or friends in Duékoué. When ethnic fighting started in Duékoué in early January, people fled again to new locations,” said Ms. Fleming.

Host families are struggling to feed and accommodate those displaced, even as some of the IDPs are said to be sleeping in the bush after fleeing from violence. “We have also recorded testimony from women who were raped during the ethnic conflict in Duékoué in early January,” Ms. Fleming added.

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