Thousands of refugees from the Ivory Coast in Liberia are reporting that the the pro-Quattara Muslim rebels are killing people and raping women. They are killing “everyone and anyone.” There are even rumors of cannibalism.
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-organized 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.