DAKAR, 5 April 2011 (IRIN) - Supporters of Laurent Gbagbo and presidential rival Alassane Ouattara are trading accusations over the reported deaths of hundreds of civilians in the western Ivoirian town of Duékoué.
Residents of Duékoué said the killings on 30 March were a "settling of scores" facilitated by the capture of the town by pro-Ouattara forces.
Ouattara has denied his forces are responsible for the deaths of over 800 civilians, but the internationally recognized president is facing tough questions from human rights groups, the UN and several of the governments that rapidly endorsed him after the November 2010 election against incumbent Gbagbo.
The Ouattara camp says the charges are unfounded and malicious and that the worst of the violence in Duékoué was carried out by pro-Gbagbo forces. However, Ouattara has promised an investigation and said he welcomed an international inquiry.
UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic arrived in Côte d'Ivoire this week to look at the situation in the west.
Duékoué was one of several towns to fall in recent days to pro-Ouattara troops now calling themselves the Forces Républicaines de Côte d'Ivoire (FRCI).
According to reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross and other aid agencies at least 800 people were killed in the Duékoué fighting. While details are sketchy, most victims appear to have been from the local Guéré community, traditionally Gbagbo supporters.
Some Duékoué residents contacted by IRIN blamed the killings on farmers living in encampments outside Duékoué - on land they have worked for decades - whom the Guéré have sought to oust since Gbagbo's arrival in power.
Gbagbo sought to annul land leases to Burkinabé, Baoulé and other groups working the coffee and cocoa plantations, in favour of previous Guéré owners and their descendants. "These killings were a settling of scores," one Guéré man said. "People came and killed the [mainly Wobé and Guéré] landowners." Residents said people came to the town after the FRCI, armed primarily with hunting rifles and machetes.
The man, who preferred anonymity, said pro-Ouattara forces must account for the incident. "Truly, we do not understand. Someone with the FRCI must explain to us why, just after they came through, these killings happened."
Most of the killings reportedly were in the Carréfour neighbourhood - known as a base for pro-Gbagbo militia. Residents said the militia had fled and innocent civilians were left behind. "[Groups who work the land] are taking advantage of the presence of the FRCI to eliminate as many [locals] as possible in order to control the land," said one of the thousands of residents who have sought refuge at the Catholic mission in Duékoué.
Residents said all homes in Carréfour were burned and homes in other neighbourhoods pillaged.
Residents of Duékoué said two days after the killings the new FRCI authorities sent a griot - a traditional West African poet, musician and storyteller - through the town calling for calm, urging people to return to their normal activities and stressing the town was now secure. But the griot also passed on strong warnings: "Anyone found armed but not belonging to the FRCI will be disarmed. Anyone caught stealing will be killed, without exception."
"Duékoué has always had rough edges", said Laurent, who grew up in Abidjan's Yopougon District, but used to go on regular family visits to the west. "Our vehicle would stop off at Duékoué and there would always be that kind of warning: Duékoué, watch out for your belongings, there are thieves here."
History of violence
Duékoué, with a population 75,000, has seen some of the worst violence in Côte d'Ivoire since the 2002 rebellion. Fighting was brief but destructive, displacing thousands. Pro-Gbagbo government troops battled an armed faction that drew heavily on Liberian mercenaries and later merged into the rebel Forces Nouvelles.
Following a rebellion by northerner soldiers in 2002 that split Côte d'Ivoire in two, Duékoué - 480km northwest of Abidjan - was a frontline town, lying in a buffer zone separating Gbagbo-government soldiers and rebels. This arrangement was unpopular with Gbagbo supporters, especially the Guéré, who complained of a security vacuum. Sceptical also of the ability of Gbagbo's Forces de défense et sécurité (FDS) to defend them, Guéré fighters joined pro-Gbagbo militias.
The conflict exacerbated tensions between the Guéré and migrant communities. As in other regions of the west, there was a long-established divide between the original owners of the land and Malinké from the north, Baoulé from the central regions, and Burkinabé. Land arrangements, under which outside groups farmed plantations owned by local western families, became increasingly fraught, and the system began to break down.
There were outbreaks of violence between Guéré and Baoulé in 1997 and Guéré and Burkinabé in 1999, both within kilometres of Duékoué. In a 2009 report the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said "inter-community clashes over land ownership are a matter of grave concern". [ http://ochaonline.un.org/humanitarianappeal/webpage.asp?Page=1761 ]
Duékoué and its surrounding villages have long been divided into distinct districts, each associated with a particular community. Despite persistent efforts by religious leaders, civil society groups and international NGOs to promote peaceful coexistence, Duékoué has remained volatile.
In June 2005 dozens of mainly Guéré villagers were attacked in night raids on two nearby villages, Petit Duékoué and Guitrozon. Houses were set ablaze and men, women and children hacked to death. Some accused the Dozo, traditional hunter warriors attached to the Malinké community and seen by many as proxy soldiers for the rebels - accusations that have resurfaced after the recent killings.
Peace accords following the rebellion called for a disarming of pro-Gbagbo militias and other groups. But arms have continued to circulate in the west, with ordinary civilians and local authorities frequently complaining about high levels of banditry, particularly the operations of "coupeurs de route", who regularly attack private cars and busses.
While Duékoué was relatively peaceful during the October-November presidential elections, violence resurfaced in January when a woman trader was killed in a road attack residents said was carried out by pro-Gbagbo militia. Subsequent clashes between mainly Guéré and Malinké communities resulted in heavy casualties and a huge influx of local residents into the town's Catholic mission, which has hosted thousands of displaced persons at different points over the past decade.
Aid groups have expressed concern over the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Duékoué and the potential impact of further instability.