Ivory Coast: Deadly ethnic clashes in Duekoue

UN troops in Abidjan, 5 Jan The UN has some 10,000 troops in Ivory Coast to prevent renewed conflict

At least 14 people have died in ethnic clashes in Ivory Coast between groups that support opposing sides in the crisis over the disputed election.

The UN says the unrest in Duekoue is not directly linked to the power struggle between incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara.

But the UN peacekeeping chief in Ivory Coast Alan Le Roy warned it could be "the start of conflict in the west".

The town is close to the north-south ceasefire line that splits the country.

Mr Ouattara, who is popular in the north, is considered by the international community to be the winner of the November election intended to reunify the country which has been divided since a 2002 conflict.

He remains behind a blockade at a hotel in the main city Abidjan as Mr Gbagbo refuses to step aside despite pleas from West African leaders.

He has called on the West African regional grouping Ecowas to send in special forces to remove Mr Gbagbo from power.

The group, which is trying to mediate an end to the crisis, has already threatened to send in a force if Mr Gbagbo refuses to go.

"Legitimate force doesn't mean a force against Ivorians," Mr Ouattara told reporters on Thursday.

"It's a force to remove Laurent Gbagbo and that's been done elsewhere, in Africa and in Latin America, there are non-violent special operations which allow simply to take the unwanted person and take him elsewhere."

Armed militias
map

The BBC's John James in Abidjan says the area around Duekoue, some 500km (300 miles) west of the commercial capital, is known as the Wild West.

It has long been one of the most unstable regions of Ivory Coast and saw clashes at the height of the civil war.

The area is home to various militia groups which have not been disarmed - some of whom are loyal to Mr Gbagbo.

Mercenaries from neighbouring Liberia are also in the region, he says.

The recent trouble has mainly been between the pro-Gbagbo Guere community and Malinke groups, who originate from the north of the country.

The unrest began three days ago when shots were fired at a minibus, killing a Malinke passenger.

Residents of the town report a large number of houses burned and widespread destruction.

Alassane Ouattarra: "The day Laurent Gbagbo leaves everyone will be happy"

"We feel that what happened in Duekoue is a reflection of the tendency towards inter-communal tension and violence," UN mission in Ivory Coast human rights spokesman Simon Munzu is quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.

The Ivorian army denies that former rebel soldiers allied to Mr Ouattara were involved.

But the inter-ethnic violence shows how instability could spread if the stand-off continues and the state starts to lose control of the situation, our reporter says.

The UN, which has some 10,000 peacekeepers in the country, says 210 people have been killed in the past four weeks.

The tension in the west has already pushed members of both communities to flee into neighbouring Liberia - some 22,000 people have crossed the border so far, the UN says.

On Thursday, the Liberian government announced plans to build a refugee camp 50km from the border.

Mr Ouattara was initially proclaimed the winner by the country's election commission - a verdict backed by the UN, which helped organise the poll.

But the country's Constitutional Council, headed by an ally of Mr Gbagbo, later ruled that he had won, citing voting irregularities in the north.

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