Death squads reemerge in Ivory Coast as president contests election results

So-called 'death squads' have reappeared in the Ivory Coast, terrorizing neighborhoods that voted for Alassane Ouattara over incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo.

Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters
UN security forces are seen deployed around United Nations headquarters in Abidjan, on Dec. 20. Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara urged the United Nations to toughen its peacekeeping mandate on Monday to help quell a violent power struggle that has already claimed over 50 lives.

When the truckloads of heavily armed and masked men arrive, the women in this Abidjan neighborhood descend into the streets banging pots and pans.

It's a community organized alarm system – often accompanied by barriers at either end of the block manned by local teenagers – that is part of a desperate attempt to protect residents against the reemergence of death squads since the Ivory Coast's disputed Nov. 28 election.

People are terrified in neighborhoods that voted for Alassane Ouattara, the man the international community is recognizing as the legitimate president of Ivory Coast. No one knows exactly how many people have disappeared in the nighttime raids, but local United Nations chief Choi Young-jin estimated at least 50 since Dec. 16, when police opened fire on pro-Ouattara demonstrators, killing between 10 and 30 people.

The government is still controlled by incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, who has also claimed victory in the election. He denies any knowledge of the nighttime attacks, but security forces loyal to the man who refuses to relinquish power have been preventing UN investigation teams from getting to crime scenes and talking to witnesses.

"The deteriorating security conditions in the country and the interference with freedom of movement of UN personnel have made it difficult to investigate the large number of human rights violations reported," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement Sunday from Geneva.

'Hyenas' have a history

In Ivory Coast, there's a long history of these “hyenas,” as local writer Venance Konan has dubbed them, because of their tendency to attack only the weak and always at night. After a rebellion failed to topple President Gbagbo in 2002, reports began surfacing of armed men showing up in the night targeting Gbagbo's political opponents.

They killed former president Robert Guei and his family. They tried to get Mr. Ouattara, but the former prime minister fled by climbing his garden wall and seeking sanctuary at the German ambassador's house next door.

Gbagbo has persistently denied any relationship to these squads, which had sprung up at the same time as dozens of daytime-operating militias, who openly supported the president. But when UN sanctions began being placed on those associated with the militias – including Charles Blé Goudé, now a minister in Gbagbo's newly appointed government – and talk of International Criminal Court charges began for those involved with the death squads, the death squads disappeared.

Until now.

UN refuses to leave

In the days following Gbagbo's order on Saturday for the UN peacekeeping mission to leave the country, UN employees have started receiving visits at their homes. Groups of armed youths have searched their houses looking for weapons after Gbagbo's government accused the UN of arming the rebels and passing them strategic information.

In a rebuff to Gbagbo, the United Nations Security Council today voted to continue its mission here through June and condemned "in the strongest possible terms the attempts to usurp the will of the people and undermine the integrity of the electoral process."

Many of the UN staff here are sleeping at their offices, and all of the nonessential staff have been evacuated.

Journalists aren't being spared, either. A French TV crew was ordered to kneel with their hands behind their heads in a mock execution pose after being stopped by security forces last week, and others have been receiving threatening phone calls.

The rising xenophobia harkens back to the height of tensions during the civil war in 2003 and 2004, when anti-French riots led to the mass evacuation of 10,000 French citizens in a matter of weeks.

Salimata, who asked that her full name not be used, says that her neighborhood here in Abidjan has been on edge since the disappearances started last week. “Everyone knows someone who's lost someone, we just hope we're not next,” she says.

(Editor's note: The original article incorrectly stated that Charles Blé Goudé was openly associated with the death squads in 2002. Mr. Goudé actually supported the daytime-operating militias.)

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