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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

COTE D'IVOIRE: Peacekeepers say 2,000 gunmen still roam the Wild West

ABIDJAN, 16 July 2003 (IRIN) - About 2,000 gunmen who formerly fought for both government and rebel forces in the west of Cote d'Ivoire are still at large, preying off the civilian population and preventing relief agencies from operating freely in the lawless region close to the Liberian border, according to a source in the French peacekeeping force.

Several hundred French troops and a small contingent of West African peacekeepers moved in to establish a "Zone of Confidence" in the "Wild West" at the end of May. They succeeded in reopening the main roads connecting the towns of Duekoue, Man, Danane, Toulepleu and Guiglo, but the source said that security remained poor in more isolated communities which are accessible only by dirt tracks.

He also remarked that many of the gunmen had simply moved further south into the Tai national park since the arrival of the foreign peacekeepers and had begun stealing and extorting money from civilians in this area too.

Fighting between government forces and rebels occupying the north of Cote d'Ivoire ended in most parts of the country in April, following the formation of a government of national reconciliation which included nine rebel ministers.

But violence continued in the densely forested west of the country, where both sides had recruited and armed large numbers of Ivorian civilians and Liberian refugees and mercenaries. These forces were seldom if ever paid, and looted goods from the towns and villages they raided on both sides of the frontline. Such raids were routinely accompanied by rapes and killings. The bodies of victims killed were at times thrown into wells, contaminating the local drinking water.

The source said the French and West African peacekeepers sent in to restore order in the west had failed to disarm these gunmen. They had merely displaced them to more remote villages and new areas, where they continued to steal food from farmers and set up impromptu road blocks to extort money from commercial vehicles and travellers.

Travellers from the area told IRIN that the gunmen had also been forcing Malian and Burkinabe refugees fleeing the civil war in Liberia to pick cocoa and coffee beans on plantations belonging to local people which were then sold at knockdown prices to clandestine dealers.

The French military source said that as a result of continuing security problems in and around the Zone of Confidence, relief agencies had been unable to reach tens of thousands of villagers who were desperately short of food and in urgent need of healthcare assistance.

"People living to the south of the Zone of Confidence in the Tai region have been left to fend for themselves, cut off from all food and medical supplies," he stressed, adding that the peacekeepers had no mandate to patrol this area.

The peacekeeping forces have advised all relief workers operating within the Zone of Confidence to be accompanied by a military escort for their own safety. Several, including Medecins Sans Frontieres and Action Contre le Faim, Solidarite and the medical charity Merlin, are active in the Zone of Confidence, but their freedom of movement is limited.

Nicolas Pazeny, the head of Solidarite in Cote d'Ivoire, told IRIN: "In the Guiglo area we sometimes come across armed children on the road, but security is relatively okay."

Another relief worker, who asked not to be identified, said: "Sometimes, armed men block our way and we do not manage to reach our target destinations because we are not prepared to negotiate with them."

The humanitarian situation in the west of Cote d'Ivoire has been aggravated by a new influx of refugees fleeing the civil war in Liberia. Most of these - about 30,000 - are concentrated around the port town of Tabou, to the south of the Tai national park, where security is less of a problem.

The authorities have little information about the numbers crossing the border further north.

About 4,000 French peacekeepers and 1,300 West African troops from Ghana, Togo, Benin, Senegal and Niger were sent to Cote d'Ivoire after the government and rebels signed a peace agreement in January, but more are needed to oversee the process of disarmament and demobilisation that is due to begin shortly.

Officials of France, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United States and other western donors were due to meet in Paris on Friday to discuss requests for financial assistance to deploy more West African peacekeepers in Cote d'Ivoire.

Themes: (IRIN) Conflict



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