Africa

Tensions simmer along Ivory Coast buffer zone

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Media captionLaurent Gbagbo supporter: 'He wants to be the president at any cost'

The mountainous west of Ivory Coast has been cut off for weeks.

Foreign journalists, despised by many here, run the gauntlet of roadblocks and risk their cameras being seized by gunmen if they venture in by road.

So a seat on a UN plane offers a chance to slip behind "enemy lines" and observe the impact that the political impasse is having.

We have received reports that thousands of people are on the move after fighting in the town of Duekoue a fortnight ago.

More than 30 people were killed and dozens more are in hospital. The political stalemate between Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo is now a catalyst for revived ethnic tensions.

Our first stop is Man, a town some 50km (31 miles) from the Liberian border. Church bells mingle with the call to prayer from the local mosque - a potent reminder of the tolerance that Ivory Coast boasted in calmer times.

'Mercenaries'

Man sits north of the buffer zone that separates the New Forces rebels, whose leader has been re-appointed as Mr Ouattara's prime minister, and the territory to the south controlled by the FDS - the army that remains loyal to Mr Gbagbo.

The rebel commander in Man is Maj Losseni Fofana. He says his men are "under control" but he is concerned about "foreign mercenaries" fighting on Mr Gbagbo's side.

Claims of hired gunmen are being made from across the political divide and are almost impossible to verify.

When challenged about his provocative claim, he boasts that he has receipts signed by Mr Gbagbo himself, found on English-speaking fighters captured by his men.

It is little wonder that Ivory Coast's neighbours are anxious for the crisis to be resolved. Many fear that a protracted stalemate could destabilise the entire region.

As we drive the 80km (50 mile) journey south from Man to Duekoue on the other side of the front line - the curiously named "zone of confidence" dating back to the 2002 civil war - there is a perceptible change in mood. People here are jumpy.

As we enter the Catholic mission, which has been transformed into a sanctuary for the displaced, we are mobbed by a crowd, spat at and cursed.

We had expected to find victims from all sides following attacks and counter-attacks, but the communities with ties to Mr Ouattara's ethnic group are nowhere to be found. They have melted into communities further north where they feel safer.

"We don't want UN and we don't want foreign journalists," a woman hisses at us.

The inter-ethnic fighting in Duekoue had split along political lines and almost the only people occupying the camp are Gbagbo supporters.

War weary

They had been forewarned that we were coming - groomed and primed. To ensure loyalty, a pro-Gbagbo team had come to the camp to deliver food just five minutes before we arrived.

Father Cyprien Ahoure, the Catholic priest who has the difficult task of trying to manage the camp, warns that Duekoue and the surrounding area is growing more volatile by the day.

"A week ago there were 3,000 people seeking sanctuary. Now that has risen to more than 13,000," he says. He adds that there are thousands more heading for the border.

Many Ivorians have seen it all before. This is the third time that Ellen has been made homeless.

"Twice it was because of a civil war, now it is down to election," she sighs.

Image caption The main hospital in Duekoue is caring for many injured in the clashes

After seeing her neighbours turn on each other seizing whatever they could "that could kill", she doesn't care who is the legitimate president. She just wants peace.

It is a similar story at Duekoue's main hospital. They took in 34 wounded in the past two week, explains Dr Dominique Nguetta, the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) doctor in charge.

Many had gunshot wounds or deep cuts. A son and his elderly father lie on opposite sides of a brightly lit ward. They both have head wounds, having been struck with a blunt machete. They won't say by whom.

Duekoue is a simmering cauldron of deep-seated ethnic tensions - much of them linked to ownership of land - but the danger of these spilling out further is very real.

Udolamb Ngokwey, a high-ranking UN representative in Ivory Coast, says the current political environment is being exploited to whip up ethnic hatred.

He hopes that successful mediation will help "to mitigate the consequences of this political crisis".

For Raila Odinga, the Kenyan prime minister and African Union envoy who returns for a fresh attempt to urge Mr Gbagbo to step aside, this is familiar territory.

Mr Odinga's own country paid the price in human blood following disputed elections two years ago when ethnicity was abused by politicians and used as the language of hate.

Although the troubles in Duekoue have largely been confined to this area, the longer the impasse remains, the more volatile the situation may become.

Ivory Coast may have already tried the power-sharing option, which now defines Mr Odinga's country, but the Kenyan leader will be looking for a compromise that will last.

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