52 killed in Ivory Coast in a week

Post-election violence claimed 52 lives in the Ivory Coast in the past week, bringing the death toll this year to 462, as strongman Laurent Gbagbo refuses to cede power, the UN mission said Thursday.

The United Nations Operation in Ivory Coast (UNOCI) said the west of the country was wracked by violence and confusion, and a warehouse belonging to the UN refugee agency had been looted by a group of militia.

Bloodshed has become a daily occurence in the world's top cocoa producer, thrust into crisis after November 28 presidential polls which sparked clashes between pro-Gbagbo forces and those backing internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara.

During the week "shelling and indiscriminate violence against civilians claimed at least 52 lives including five children and seven women, as well as several dozen injured," the UN mission's deputy human rights director Guillaume Ngefa told a press conference.

"The total number of deaths has gone up to 462 since mid-December" 2010, he added.

The UN on Thursday warned both Gbagbo's Defense and Security Forces and local militias backing Ouattara that "deliberately launching generalised or systematic attacks against civilian populations could constitute crimes against humanity."

Ngefa said residents of the commercial capital Abidjan "continue to massively flee their suburbs due to the violence and a lack of access to food and medicine."

In the west of Ivory Coast, rival forces battled for strategic towns.

"There has been a lot of violence, a lot of confusion in Guiglo. There have been attacks and looting against a United Nations agency. The HCR warehouse was looted," UNOCI spokesman Hamadoun Toure said at the same press conference.

"The situation is still confused, we are busy evaluating the damage," he said.

Guiglo, along with Duekoue, 30 kilometres (20 miles) to the northeast, are key crossroads leading east to the political capital Yamassoukro and south to San Pedro, the world's biggest cocoa exporting port.

Sources said Wednesday thousands were fleeing clashes on the road between Guiglo -- held by pro-Gbagbo troops -- and the town of Blolequin, some 60 kilometres (40 miles) to the west, seized by Ouattara fighters on Monday.

UNOCI raised the alarm Tuesday about the use of heavy weapons by Gbagbo forces against civilians.

Toure reiterated Thursday that UNOCI "has the means" to prevent the use of an MI-24 attack helicopter, being repaired in the military wing of Abidjan airport, as well as BM21 multiple rocket launchers in the hands of Gbagbo troops.

"It is a strong warning, and we really mean it and we will do it," he said, adding these were non-conventional weapons whose use was forbidden after World War II.

The UN mission has come under fire for failing to protect civilians and Ouattara's government has urged the UN Security Council "to authorise the immediate use of legitimate force to protect civilians in imminent danger."

Toure said the mandate of the 10,000-strong UNOCI, awaiting reinforcement of 2,000 men, was merely one of peacekeeping and not peace enforcement.

"You only return fire when you are shot at. It is not up to the UNOCI to change that, he said, adding that in a population of 20 million "it is not possible to provide security to the whole population."

West African leaders were meeting Thursday in the Nigerian capital Abuja in the final day of a summit under pressure to act on Ivory Coast, while the head of their regional bloc sent a letter to Gbagbo condemning violent rhetoric.

Leaders from West African bloc ECOWAS were expected to issue a statement on the crisis later in the day, after Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said they may ask the United Nations to take further action.


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