Fear, tension grip Ivory Coast town after disputed vote

Toumodi (Ivory Coast) (AFP) –


Shifting through the charred remains of his home, Jacob Yahot can only talk about fear after he saw houses and shops torched in election riots.

The town of Toumodi, near Ivory Coast's capital of Yamoussoukro, exploded into clashes between rival ethnic groups seen as allied to either President Alassane Ouattara or his opponents in Saturday's election.

At least six people have died there, including a family of four whose home was set ablaze on Sunday, as tensions erupted into violence over Ouattara's bid for a third term.

"We live with fear," said Yahot, a 70-year-old retiree, standing in the ashes.

"They burned an 83-year-old woman in a neighbour's house, her son, her daughter and her daughter-in-law. Four people in the same family died."

At least 40 people have died in violence since August, when Ouattara announced he run again, triggering outrage from opponents who said he was breaching the country's two-term presidential limit.

On Tuesday the 78-year-old president was declared the victor, securing a third term by a landslide.

But francophone West Africa's economic powerhouse is now caught in a standoff, with opposition parties announcing a rival "transitional" government after boycotting the election and calling for civil disobedience.

Security forces are surrounding the homes of opposition leaders in Abidjan after officials accused them of plotting against the state by announcing a parallel government.

The crisis has stirred worries over a return to the violence that tipped Ivory Coast into fighting a decade ago, killing 3,000 people when then president Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept defeat by Ouattara.

Abidjan, the economic capital, on Thursday had returned to its usual bustle and traffic.

But in the provincial towns where violence erupted, tensions are simmering.

Like other rural areas, Toumodi is a mix of the ethnic and regional loyalties that often define Ivorian politics.

Most fighting over the election involved youth from local ethnic groups close to the opposition and Dioula communities from the north associated with Ouattara, who himself is a Muslim with roots in the northern region.

Each side has accused the other of stirring up ethnic tensions for electoral gain.

In Toumodikro, the district that gave Toumodi its name, many residents belong to the Baoule community seen as loyal to opposition leader Henri Konan Bedie, whose villa in Abidjan is now surrounded by police.

A dozen homes, including Yahot's house, and businesses were torched in Toumodikro.

Over a kilometre (half a mile), shops and open-air bars known locally as maquis were ransacked and burned. In the smoking ashes of one clothing store, a child's toy escaped the blaze. Nearby, a hardware store's goods lay spilled out into the road.

"We were left alone, defenceless," said Yahot who described gangs of unidentified people with guns and machetes who descended on their neighbourhood.

- 'Disgust' -

Near Yahot's home is the burnt-out house of Felix Kouadio, a high school teacher. A bag slung over his shoulder, Kouadio walked in the debris, trying to salvage what he could.

"I have only found my children's notebooks. All my books from high school to university and my diplomas have disappeared in the flames," he says, his face heartbroken.

"I moved out with the family because of the tension. On Sunday, they called me to tell me that my house was on fire," he said.

Bitter politics surrounding the election have torn the social fabric in a town where communities had usually lived together in peace, he said.

"I just feel disgust. The people who did this have no heart, because people here have nothing to do with politics," he said.

During Saturday's vote, responding to the opposition's call for "civil disobedience", young Baoule men had erected barricades to prevent the vote.

Clashes soon broke out between them and groups from Dioula communities.

On Sunday, the clashes flared again, culminating in the Dioula raid on Toumodikro, residents said.

"The main market was set on fire by the Baoule to retaliate for the acts committed by the Dioula in Toumodikro," said one local security source.

On Monday, an unidentified group killed two young people from the entourage of Minister of Equipment Amede Koffi Kouakou, who were trying to help the minister's brother caught in a scuffle in Toumodi.

They were shot and then killed with a machete, a family source said.

Residents worry the rift is widening between the two communities.

Police have been deployed between the two areas to avoid further clashes.

Young volunteers criss-crossed the town on Wednesday to convey a messages of peace and calm, spraying graffiti on the walls.

"I am Toumodi, No to violence!" it read. "Youth of Toumodi, you burn shops, markets, but tomorrow what will we do?"