Côte d'Ivoire

Dozens of bodies litter Abidjan forest clearing

By Silvia Aloisi

ABIDJAN, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Dozens of bodies of young men, apparently shot dead at close range, littered a grassy clearing on Friday in a forest on the outskirts of Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan.

The bodies were discovered in the Banco Forest to the north west of the city one day after people's power protests that toppled military ruler Robert Guei degenerated into political and ethnic clashes.

How they died was unclear but one nearby resident, who declined to be identified, said they had been taken there on Thursday evening and shot.

They were captured by gendarmes in Abobo. They were taken here and executed yesterday evening," he said, quoting a survivor.

A senior gendarmerie source said he was not aware of the presence of bodies. Diplomats said the security forces were blaming atrocities on soldiers loyal to Guei.

There was no independent confirmation either way.

Thursday's clashes pit supporters of Muslim former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara against supporters of the country's new President, Laurent Gbagbo, who won Sunday's presidential election.

The young men looked as though they were shot at close range. Several were stripped naked. A faint smell of decomposing flesh hung over the clearing as dusk approached.

One group of about 10 bodies lay strewn across one corner of the clearing, just a few km (miles) from an industrial wasteland bordering the populous suburb of Yopougon.

SURREAL SILENCE

As many as 40 bodies littered the ground nearby, with spent cartridges scattered around them. One of the dead was clearly in his early teens.

There was a surreal silence in the clearing, which was down a sandy track a stone's throw from a nearby road. The identity of the dead or their ethnic origin were not clear.

A group of three local men who had just been to the scene stopped nearby.

It's impossible to believe," said one of them.

Other young men a few hundred metres (yards) away remained silent, just pointing their fingers towards the clearing.

The Banco Forest, on the doorstep of Abidjan, has been turned into a national park and nature reserve.

School children and families often visit the forest on outings. The nearby Banco washer men, who wash clothes from all over the city on stones and tyres in a nearby river, are a classic scene for photographers visiting the city.

Ouattara, who draws his support from the Muslim north and its migrants, was excluded from Sunday's election. His supporters took to the streets as Guei fled to demand that a new election be held.

Gbagbo's supporters come essentially from the animist and Christian west.

Ouattara has accused members of the security forces of siding with Gbagbo loyalists and targeting men from the north.

On Friday, his spokesman Aly Coulibaly put the death toll during three days of protest and violence at 155, many of them from the north.

He said that 316 people had been wounded and 116 detained.

There's a problem of human rights here," he said.

Initial estimates of the death toll during the people's power protests on Tuesday and Wednesday and during Thursday's political and ethnic clashes topped 100.

Soldiers loyal to Guei fired into the crowd at the height to the protests that toppled him.

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