War in western Ivory Coast could outlast presidential battle in Abidjan

Forces loyal to both sides in Ivory Coast's presidential dispute recently attacked civilians in ethnically motivated killings in the country's west, according to a report by Human Rights Watch in New York.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A soldiers allied with Alassane Ouattara takes up a position with a machete in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday. Human Rights Watch called on Alassane Ouattara to investigate and prosecute those in his forces responsible for attacking and killing civilians in western Ivory Coast.

Fighting in Ivory Coast's rural west may outlast the deadly urban battle for the presidency underway in the top cocoa producer's main city, Abidjan.

Soldiers backing Alassane Ouattara, the internationally-recognized president of the divided West African nation, killed hundreds of civilians, raped at least 20 more, and burned 10 villages in western Ivory Coast, Human Rights Watch said this weekend in an e-mailed report.

Those soldiers summarily executed and assaulted non-combatants from ethnic groups loyal to his rival, incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, as they entered western Ivory Coast towns during a March offensive to dislodge the incumbent from power, the New York-based humanitarian group's report said.

The report cited more than 120 witnesses to rapes and murders. It also accused soldiers loyal to Mr. Gbagbo for killing more than 100 civilians, including children, last month – most of them farmers from Ivory Coast's north or from northern neighbors, like Mali or Burkina Faso.

Gbagbo has refused to acknowledge results from a Nov. 28 election that showed he lost to Ouattara in the nation's first free and full election since the nation's 2002 civil war. He remains ensconced in a bunker below his residence in Abidjan.

Even if he comes out, Ivory Coast's west is likely to remain a center of violence, Human Rights Watch researcher Matt Wells, the author of the report, said in a phone interview.

"The West is a long-volatile part of the country, marked by a lack of accountability and rule of law," Wells said. "This kind of killing on ethnic lines that we documented in village after village further threatens the stability of the country."

The United Nations said Friday that it found 115 bodies in three towns. The bodies were found west of Duékoué, where the Red Cross said last month that 800 people had been killed in a single massacre.

The region has also seen an influx of mercenaries from neighboring Liberia, diehards who never fully stopped fighting the two civil wars that brought that country to ruin.

Fighting in the west mirrors the larger Ivory Coast war, with tensions high between southern Ivoirians, many who view themselves as the rightful landowners in the area, and northern Ivoirians, who were invited by Ivory Coast's "founding father" Felix Houphouët-Boigny to move south and work the land.

When Mr. Houphouët-Boigny died, his goodwill towards northerners went with him. Ivory Coast's migrant workers – many who hail from as far north as neighboring Burkina Faso – have lived in legal limbo, since a 1998 law decreed that foreigners can rent, but not own, land. The debate centers around who, exactly, is a foreigner. Many of the so-called immigrants in western Ivory Coast were born there, and have farmed their plots for generations.

The conflict in the former French colony is a kaleidoscope of political rivals, packed together by political expediency in an easy north versus south alignment. But at the center of the decade-long violence, is a fight over who is allowed to profit from the world's most productive cocoa crop.

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