ABIDJAN (Reuters) - A smouldering heap of burnt metal sheets is all that is left of Bamba Yaya's house in Washington, a shanty town in Ivory Coast's main city.
Residents said paramilitary gendarmes stormed the place on Tuesday night, setting shacks ablaze and telling residents to leave -- despite appeals from U.N. officials to spare the slum in the name of peace in the war-divided country.
"They arrived at 2 a.m. As soon as I saw them coming, I ran away and hid up there," said Bamba, who comes from the north of Ivory Coast, pointing to a clump of palm trees.
"I stayed there an hour. When I came back, my house had been burnt down. I've lost everything," he said.
By the past standards of destruction in the settlements, the raid was small -- nine houses burnt and seven people taken away, compared to thousands made homeless in previous clearances.
But it came as a bitter reminder of the tensions in Ivory Coast as a French-brokered peace accord meant to end civil war, and start healing the rift between largely Muslim north and Christian south, slipped closer to collapse.
Most of the residents of Abidjan's shanty towns are from either the north or northern neighbouring countries.
Many in the security forces and President Laurent Gbagbo's supporters from the south say the slums are hiding places for rebels who have held the northern half of Ivory Coast since civil war erupted with a failed coup in mid-September.
Washington's residents say most of those who lost their homes or were arrested this time were northerners or immigrants.
FACES IN SHADOW
"It was dark and they flashed their torches on us, so we couldn't see their faces. But we recognised their uniforms," said one resident, giving his name only as Gue.
Gendarmerie and defence ministry officials were not immediately available for comment.
Just last weekend, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's humanitarian envoy visited Washington after a first raid by security forces -- during which residents say gendarmes pinned children under wooden boards and trampled on them.
U.N. envoy Carolyn McAskie warned that the French-brokered peace deal which had just been signed in Paris could never work if ethnic and communal hatred continued in the same way.
That accord appeared in severe doubt on Wednesday after key points were opposed by the army, several political parties and the interior minister. Gbagbo himself has referred to the deal as "proposals".
The fading hopes of peace were felt with particular despair in Washington.
Not far from Abidjan's plush Cocody district, terrified residents braced themselves for another night of fear in their crumbling shacks, many measuring just three square metres.
"They said they would come back to see if we've all gone," Gue said. "But we've got nowhere else to go. These are our villas."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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