Côte d’Ivoire: UN raises concern over civilians trapped by fighting in Abidjan suburb

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

1 March 2011 – The United Nations refugee agency today expressed concern over the plight of civilians trapped in the Abobo district of Abidjan, the commercial capital of Côte d’Ivoire, where fighting has been raging for several days, and called for a halt to the fighting to allow non-combatants to leave.

“There must be no targeting of civilians. All efforts must be made to prevent civilians being placed in harm’s way,” the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Melissa Fleming, told a press conference in Geneva today. She noted that the population of Abobo is estimated at 1.5 million people, many of whom have already fled while armed groups are reported to be preventing others from leaving.

“Of particular concern to UNHCR were the risks for people who may have had difficulties with moving, including the elderly, the sick and pregnant women,” Ms. Fleming said, adding that some people had fled yesterday, taking advantage of a brief lull in fighting.

Côte d’Ivoire has been beset by political uncertainty, with growing reports of tension and violence between rival groups since incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo refused to leave office after he was defeated by opposition leader Alassane Ouattara in a presidential election held last November, whose result was certified by the UN.

Church officials in Abobo have told UNHCR that some 60 families, mainly women and children, were trapped in a church where they were being prevented from leaving by armed men, and where they lack food, water and sanitary facilities, with corpses said to be lying nearby.

“UNHCR’s monitoring teams have heard other reports of people being prevented from leaving the areas of fighting,” Ms. Fleming said. “Some families had been forced to hand over money or personal possessions to be allowed to leave.”

The spokesperson cited reports of many dead bodies, burned buses and shops looted, and of young militiamen attacking people inside their homes. The developments on the ground have led to rising transportation costs, as thousands of families tried to board taxis, buses or private cars to reach safer neighbourhoods or their home villages. Taxi drivers are reportedly refusing to take people to some destinations in other parts of the city because of reports of gunfire.

Elsewhere in western Côte d’Ivoire, most of the 9,000 displaced people at the Catholic mission in Duékoué have left the location because of fear of new conflict. Plans for a UNHCR camp in the area have been put on hold.

Nearly 30,000 Ivorians have fled across the border into Liberia in recent days, joining 40,000 of their compatriots already there.

Speaking at the same press conference in Geneva, a spokesperson for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Marixie Mercado, said that more than half a million Ivorian children have been vaccinated against measles and yellow fever in response to an outbreak in the Sud-Comoe region last week.

In Liberia, food, shelter, and the risk of disease outbreaks remained the most pressing humanitarian concerns, Ms Mercado said, adding that over the past week, 207 children were screened for malnutrition and 47 of then identified as severely malnourished.

UNICEF and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) are setting up outpatient treatment centres, as well as specialized nutrition units, in the areas with large numbers of refugees. UNICEF had received about $2 million of the $5.7 it requested to respond to the humanitarian crisis resulting from the political deadlock in Côte d’Ivoire.

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