Hundreds killed by Ouattara troops at Duekoue, UN says
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The reputation of Ivory Coast's internationally recognised president, Alassane Ouattara, is at stake amid UN claims that pro-Ouattara forces were behind the massacre of at least 330 people in Duekoue on Tuesday.
AFP - Waging an offensive in Abidjan, with world opinion behind him, Ivory Coast's president-in-waiting Alassane Ouattara is suddenly facing accusations of massacres by his army in the country's west.
The 69-year-old former prime minister, elected president in November but prevented from taking office as strongman Laurent Gbagbo stubbornly refuses to leave, launched an all-out offensive to seize control of the country on Monday.
In a lightning sweep south by his fighters to reach the economic capital Abidjan, the last stronghold of his rival, one of the fiercest battles was for Duekoue, a town at a strategic crossroads in the troubled west.
The town fell on Tuesday into the hands of Ouattara's Republican Forces army, and by the time the battle for Abidjan was in full swing Friday, reports emerged of a shocking massacre in the town.
The International Red Cross said that in what appeared to be inter-ethnic violence, at least 800 people were killed on Tuesday in an incident "particularly shocking by its size and brutality".
"At least 800 people were killed in Duekoue on Tuesday," an ICRC spokeswoman in Geneva, Dorothea Krimitsas, told AFP, adding that information on the deaths had been gathered by Red Cross representatives who visited the area.
"There is no doubt that something on a large scale took place in this city, on which the ICRC is continuing to gather information," she said, adding that Red Cross representatives had "themselves seen a very large number of bodies".
On Saturday, the UN Mission in Ivory Coast (UNOCI) which recognises Ouattara as president and is providing protection for him, said in conservative initial estimates which may rise, 330 people were killed.
Ouattara's forces were accused of being the main perpetrators.
"330 people were killed between Monday and Wednesday... the majority were executed by 'dozos'", said Guillaume N'Gefa from the UNOCI human rights division, referring to traditional hunters fighting in Ouattara's army.
Among these however "over 100 people were killed by pro-Gbagbo mercenaries".
Catholic charity Caritas later said that 1,000 people had been killed or 'disappeared' in Duekoue, where mass graves were reportedly found after heavy fighting.
The International Federation of Human Rights "confirmed the existence of massacres in the town of Duekoue" but said the toll corresponded to the four previous months.
"We have regular feedback from our sources that executions continue," said an official with the organisations Africa office, Florent Geel.
Gravely implicated, Ouattara's camp insisted Saturday they had killed "militia and not civilians".
"Militiamen are not civilians. From the moment they are armed, they are considered combatants. We must avoid all confusion," a spokesman for the Republican Forces, Seydou Ouattara, told AFP.
He also sought to distance the Republican Forces from the so-called "dozos", saying they "are not members of the Republican Forces, but sympathisers".
"Laurent Gbagbo had more than 800 Liberian mercenaries and militia," said Ouattara's spokeswoman Anne Ouloto.
These Gbagbo fighters have been accused of atrocities in the region, known as the "Far West", throughout the four-month post-election crisis.
For International Crisis Group expert Rinaldo Depagne, the report from the region "doesn't surprise me at all, it is a tumultuous region which has become used to violence."
Infected by Liberia's civil war from 1989 to 2003, with refugees streaming into the country, the region became a sourcing ground for mercenaries by both Gbagbo and the rebels making up the Republican Forces during the 2002/2003 conflict in the country.
This fighting left the country split in two, with Gbagbo maintaining control of the south while the rebels took the north.
In the west a volatile mix of indigenous Guere (allegedly pro-Gbagbo), and northern Ivorians and a large population of west Africans, considered pro-Ouattara, has created a backdrop for land disputes in the cocoa-rich area.
For Ouattara, the political results of the accusations could seriously tarnish his credibility, said Depagne.
"It is not good for him at all, he has been elected democratically and he wears the suit of both a democratic man and one used to the Western world, who worked for the IMF (International Monetary Fund). Suddenly this suit is dirty."