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Ivory Coast: Was it a massacre?

Andrew Harding | 07:41 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011

How many died here last week? And was it a massacre?

On a dirt road in Duekoue, the body bags lie in haphazard groups, every hundred yards or so, waiting to be collected. I count 20 within a few blocks.

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A Red Cross truck stops to pick them up. Local workers, sweating in the heat, have found another corpse in the bushes. The teams are being closely guarded by United Nations troops. The town is still very tense. All the buildings around us have been burned or looted. I spot four pigs eating something dark in a charred courtyard.

Standing by a newly dug mass grave, a UN soldier from Morocco is choking with rage and grief. "Five days we've been doing this work," he says. "The stench of bodies..." I ask him if any of the dead are children. He holds up four fingers, then his head nods down and he begins to sob, quietly, into his facemask.

A group of Ivorian soldiers are sitting in the shade at nearby roadblock. We must have driven through 30 just like it to reach the town. The men are supporters of the man recognised as the winner of last year'e elections, Alassane Ouattara. They, and militias linked to them, swept through the region early last week, seizing huge chunks of territory from forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power. This was one of the few places - leaving aside the main city, Abidjan - where they seem to have encountered serious resistance.

"Us? We didn't kill any of them," says a young soldier insistently. "I was injured myself. It was the militia groups - they were fighting each other." The UN soldier comes over and wags a finger: "You mustn't kill them," he says. "If you have prisoners, bring them to the authorities. No more killing." They nod. But the UN man tells me that they've rescued several prisoners from cars in recent days. They suspect they were being driven out of town to be killed discreetly.

We run into Anne-Marie Altherr, deputy country director for the International Commitee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who is organising the collection of bodies. "It's really difficult," she says. "There's been a lot of dead people. It's definitely tough work - especially for the volunteers because they're from here so it's their community."

But significantly, she says she won't discuss numbers. The death toll has become a hotly disputed, highly sensitive issue. Last week, the ICRC said 800 were killed. Then another aid agency, Caritas suggested 1,000. But the UN has quietly disputed, and scaled down, those figures, and so - furiously - have officials from Mr Ouattara's government.

A car stops beside us and a young man tells me "the minister" wants to talk to me, "immediately." The UN troops are suspicious and say they'll escort us. We drive into the town centre. The road is lined with what looks like looted, or perhaps rescued furniture.

Konate Sidiki is the local representative of Mr Ouattara's government. He's clearly on a mission to limit the damage that the "massacre" allegations may be doing to the internationally backed winner of last November's election.

"Our forces cannot be implicated in any massacre," he says. "I call on all human rights organisations to come to Duekoue. One week after the fight we discover 162 people have been killed. Not 800. Not 1,000. Since we have taken control of the town there is no conflict here. Our aim is to go to Abidjan and chase Gbagbo from power."

Mr Sidiki is standing at the entrance of a church compound. Inside there are an estimated 40,000 civilians, who have lost their homes or simply fear for their lives. As Mr Sidiki approaches the crowd, an aide mimes for them to clap, and a few duly do so.

We move away to try to talk to the families here, but the same aide follows us. When a man in the crowd starts to tell us that he fears for his life, and can't go home because he is "scared of the soldiers" - pointing to the men standing outside the gate - Mr Sidiki's aide intervenes, calling him a member of "Gbagbo's militia."


  • Comment number 1.

    This might end up like Rwanda and the world will do nothing (oil and other reasons?) I read a comment from some scholar of African studies who said "Ouattara is no angel" which is true. Both parties have blood on their hands and should be held accountable for their actions

  • Comment number 2.

    The Red Cross has categoricaly stated that Ouattara is entirely responsible for the loss of 800 souls in the West of the Ivory Coast. There is no blame for Gbagbo.

    Why has the BBC failed to mention the findings of the Red Cross?

    My relatives in the Ivory Coast report pregnant women and children amongst the slaughtered.

    What would the Red Cross find if it was allowed to journey into the Northern rebel-occupied territories? I have still not heard further of the fate of my Wife's Brother. He was threatened with summary execution at the last because he had not paid his rent.

    Under the current Presidency of the ONUCI, that held by Russia, the ONUCI forces have returned to their barracks. At least there is still some sense of humanitarian feeling for the Truth of what is happening in the Ivory Coast. Thank God for the Russians. Under the previous Presidency, that held by France, my relatives reported that ONUCI was actively transporting rebel forces around the country in support of their military operation.

    I understand also that France is now acting independently and is openly attacking the Ivorian Army.

    Why is France doing this?

    After all that one might say about Gbagbo, under the Ivorian Law, he is the legal President.

    Is France pursuing a change of regime for its own self-interest?

    How is it that the Rebel forces acquired modern, high-tech weapons? They are poor People and do not have the resources to purchase these weapons. Who supplied them with these weapons?

    Heaven help Ouattara when France no longer needs him! ... but, by then, from what the Red Cross has discovered, we shall all be dead.

    Andrew, I ask you to look further afield into what has happened and what is happening. I admire you for being the first to enter the area. At least, your heart is in the right place and you are doing what you can to discover the Truth for us. Please do not give up on us. Find the Truth and let the BBC reveal what is really happening.

    Do not be fooled by France!

    Peter Charles.

  • Comment number 3.

    is Charles Blé Goudé responsible for lot massacres in Ivory Coast? Because without him, more likely Laurent Gbagbo would give up power! [Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 4.

    Sorry the link on top comment is wrong. Click one below here.

    Is Charles Blé Goudé responsible for lot massacres in Ivory Coast? Because without him, more likely Laurent Gbagbo would give up power!

  • Comment number 5.

    Gbagbo is the one asking citizens to use themselves as human shields. Additionally, with all the changing of sides, particularly the mercenaries, who knows who is who? Ouattara, among others, has called for a complete investigation. I do not think it is up to the news media to proclaim who is who until a complete investigation has been conducted by the international court, the AU and/or other unbiased group, possibly named by the international court and/or AU.

    Addtionally, in my humble opinion Charles Ble Goude is a delusional, loud-mouthed windbag, Gbagbo puppet.

  • Comment number 6.

    Atrocities need to be investigated and when he is in control Ouattara should disband the militias and commit to support the investigations. Whether he does or not is another thing and whether Ouattara is a saint or not is not the issue. Gbagbo has repeatedly turn his back on a peaceful solution, rejected the legitimacy of Ouattara's internationally-recognized win, made himself a pariah throughout Africa and has the blood of everyone who has died since he failed to relinquish power on his hands. And there will be much more bloodshed now the action has shifted to Abidjan, all futile and all avoidable.

  • Comment number 7.

    It is hard to understand what the United Nation is trying to do in Cote Ivore. It seems like they want to play the role of referee and also play for one team. They are supposed to act as an impartial arbiter for the resolution of existing conflicts. In Cote Ivore they have openly taken sides. So having abandoned their role as peace maker and having taken up a position in a supporting role for one side, one has to ask the following question. How are they now going to return to the role of impartial peace maker? Quite reasonably they can't. So who should now step into that role? It seems obvious that ONUCI is a complete failure and on many levels. The United Nations should now admit this as a fact and disband what has now become a 'conflict keeping mission'. The French are also partisan so one has to question what exactly their own military are up to. I am not convinced that the French contingent, and given their numbers reported make any difference to the situation on the ground whatsoever. Perhaps their only role is to occupy the airport every time another of their self inspired coup d’état’s end in failure. It seems like the French are still reading from a 1950's play book and must wondering why no one will stick to the script. Isn't it time for France to give up its colonial fantasy once and for all. The UN should stick to conflict resolution.

  • Comment number 8.

    Still more questions than answers for Ivory Coast

    What makes the UN to expect an election to unite a country divided on ethnic (identity) lines and by leaders who command standing armies on both sides?

    Calling on Gbagbo to step down at this moment as a prerequisite to peace and stability betrays the emptiness of the UN peacekeeping toolbox.

    Rwanda in 1994 had both a UN peacekeeping force protecting non-African nationals and a French military force providing tacit support to one side...

    All efforts to spread the blame for the massacres in Doukoue, would lead any sensible individual to conclude that the forces of the internationally recognized president-elect were responsible for the slaughter. A democratic army isn't always free of hatred for the ethnic other???

  • Comment number 9.

    If the scene would habe taken place in UK, would you show the same images of bodies ? Would you show dead people ? dead women ? dead children ?
    Why do you do it when it is African people ? Can't you respect them ?
    If this is not some rest of your (our ! I'm french) colonialist story...

  • Comment number 10.

    Rebels=Rebels. And even when Ouatarra will be president it will be more chaos. because to be honest you and I know he didn't won the election otherwise he was going to accept the recompting of the PV's simple as that instead of killing thousands of civilians for a simple election.


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