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The next Rwanda? ‘In all districts of Abidjan there is gunfire’

A massacre in a Roman Catholic mission compound in the heart of the Ivory Coast’s cocoa-producing region could come to be seen as a crucial moment in the West African state’s escalating civil war.

Reports are mounting of atrocities by both sides in the conflict − those loyal to head of state Laurent Gbagbo, besieged in his presidential residence in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, and those who follow northern leader and president-elect Allasane Ouattara.

Events at the Italian Salesian Roman Catholic mission in Duekoue increasingly echo a notorious church massacre during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Early reports suggested that more than 800 people, largely from the Gbagbo-supporting Gueré tribe, were killed in a single day at the sprawling Salesian Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus mission in Duekoue, 300 miles west of Abidjan towards the Liberian border. The attackers seem to have been largely soldiers descended from Burkina Faso immigrant Muslim families loyal to Ouattara.

Late yesterday the Roman Catholic charity Caritas said more than 1000 people were massacred in Duekoue. A Caritas spokesman said Caritas workers visited the town and reported seeing a neighbourhood filled with bodies of people who had been shot and hacked to death with machetes.

More than 5000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus sheltering in the Roman Catholic church at Nyarubuye were massacred by Hutu militiamen on April 12, 1994. Nyarube became the supreme symbol of the Rwandan genocide, in which some 800,000 people were murdered in just a hundred days.

The Duekoue massacre seemed to have stiffened the resistance, at least temporarily, of Gbagbo. His 10-year grip on power in Ivory Coast looked as though it was in its final hours on Friday after Outtara’s New Forces (NF) northern army encircled both his residence and the presidential palace, battling to unseat the man who has refused to recognise his defeat in last year’s election.

But yesterday forces loyal to Gbagbo – a southern Roman Catholic who has vowed not to step down in spite of being narrowly defeated by Outtara in a presidential election last November – put up stiff resistance to the New Forces and re-established control of the headquarters of the state TV station, RTI. It went off the air for 24 hours after it fell to Outtara’s soldiers, but by yesterday was again broadcasting pro-Gbagbo propaganda, calling on people to “resist the enemy”.

With control of RTI back in the hands of Gbagbo and updated reports being received intermittently from Duekoue, human rights organisations raised fears of widespread killings in a situation described in a United Nations document obtained by Reuters as “one of generalised chaos”.

Corinne Dufka, senior Africa researcher of Human Rights Watch, said: “We’re extremely concerned about the potential for mass atrocities.” She added: “Given Gbagbo’s prominent use of violent militia groups and the state-controlled media’s incitement to violence, we are asking UN peacekeepers to do everything in their power to protect non-combatants.”

However, the early evidence reported by Italian media from Duekoue suggests the Saint Teresa mission massacre was carried out by Outtara’s NF forces. “The incident is particularly shocking by its size and its brutality,” said Dominique Liengme, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Ivory Coast.

“Red Cross representatives themselves have seen a huge number of bodies [at the mission station],” said ICRC spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas in Geneva. “There is no doubt that something on a large scale took place in this city, on which the ICRC is continuing to gather information. Everything indicates that this was inter-ethnic violence.”

Duekoue was one of the many centres overwhelmed by the NF as its soldiers, wearing “magic” amulets, neckbands and masks, swept through the country last week in a well-organised assault, bringing more than 80% of Ivory Coast under fragile control.

For days the national army, under Gbagbo’s control, put up almost no resistance and its head, General Phillippe Mangou, fled to the home of the South African ambassador with his wife and five children. However, after several days of easy progress, the NF is now facing Gbagbo’s most reliable fighters, the roughly 2500-strong elite Republican Guard, clustered in Abidjan along with remaining regular army troops.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the fighting around Duekoue and Oxfam reports more than 120,000 people from the area have crossed the nearby border with Liberia in the last week-and-a-half.

At times the Saint Teresa mission station in Duekoue has housed as many 20,000 refugees fleeing the fighting. Since late last year there have been innumerable killings in the area prior to the recent slaughter, with hundreds of shops in the city centre set ablaze.

The cocoa economy around the city has collapsed as a result of an embargo imposed by the European Union following Gbagbo’s refusal to accept the presidential election result. According to official figures, Ouattara won with 54% of nearly five million votes cast nationally. But the head of the Constitutional Council alleged vote-rigging in the Ouattara-controlled north and declared Gbagbo the victor with 51% of the votes cast. The country then returned to civil war after enjoying a tenuous peace since 2005.

The inter-ethnic violence around Duekoue that has driven the Gueré tribal people into the mission station mirrors the kind of ethnic tensions that prevail throughout most of Ivory Coast. The Gueré ancestors had possessed the land for centuries before people from the arid north and from neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali began settling there 40 years ago, seeking work as cocoa prices boomed on world markets. Ivory Coast historically has produced more than 40% of the world’s supply of beans for production of the developed world’s chocolate products.

Ethnic tensions and xenophobic killings began when the world price of cocoa nosedived in the 1990s and some five million immigrant workers were suddenly perceived as a burden. The southern-dominated Government introduced a new xenophobic concept of “Ivorité”, or Ivorianess. Vigilantes began killing “foreigners” – the majority of them Muslims and many of them third-generation immigrants – on plantations and in shanties on the edges of the towns as the country, once the richest in West Africa, descended into civil war.

The mission killings began the day after Outarra’s fighters overwhelmed the town. A thousand UN peacekeeping soldiers, mainly from Pakistan and Vietnam and based in Duekoue, did nothing to stop the killing, according to aid workers. The aid workers spoke by phone to news agencies on condition of anonymity for fear of endangering relations between the NF forces and the UN.

Outtara yesterday issued a statement in Abidjan blaming the killings on retreating Gbagbo forces, a version of events contradicted by aid workers and missionaries. Spokesmen for Gbagbo in turn rejected Outtara’s allegations.

Krimitsas said: “There is a risk that this kind of event can happen again and hope that by calling today again for protection for the civilian population, we hope that such events can be avoided in the future.”

Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: “We’ve had unconfirmed reports of quite serious human rights violations committed by the pro-Ouattara forces.”

A spokesman for the Saint Teresa Salesians said so many refugees were arriving at mission compounds it was impossible to provide them all with shelter from seasonal rains.

Peter Pham, director of the Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, said Duekoue was an important strategic gain for Outtara as it sits along a major north-south transit corridor linking the cocoa heartland with the cocoa exporting port of San Pedro. It also controls access to northeastern Liberia which has supplied men and arms to Gbagbo’s forces, he said.

As heavy fighting continued yesterday for a third day in Abidjan, Africa’s sixth largest city with more than four million people, Gbagbo’s location was unclear. The heaviest fighting seemed to be around the Gbagbo-controlled Agban military base in the city centre.

A soldier accompanied by a dozen members of Gbagbo’s Defence and Security Forces, appeared on RTI-TV and read a statement calling for the mobilisation of troops to protect state institutions, asking for “all the staff of the armed forces” to join five units in Abidjan.

The broadcast suggests forecasts of Gbagbo’s imminent defeat and exile are wide of the mark.

Residents of Abidjan said yesterday they are scared to leave their homes. Many reported running out of food, with shops closed and widespread looting. Valerie Bony, a correspondent for the BBC in Abidjan, reported: “In all districts of Abidjan there is sporadic gunfire. There is a lot of looting going in the city.”

She added that young, pro-Gbagbo supporters in several districts have been armed by Gbagbo forces, according to witnesses.

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