COTE D IVOIRE: Several reported killed in Monday's clash, militia promises fresh attacks
ABIDJAN, 2 Mar 2005 (IRIN) - The situation remained tense in western Cote d'Ivoire on Wednesday as reports filtered out of heavy casualties in a clash between militia fighters supporting President Laurent Gbagbo and rebel fighters on the frontline earlier in the week.
Foreign residents in the volatile west of Cote d'Ivoire told IRIN that at least 15 people had been killed and 40 had been injured in Monday's attack on the rebel outpost of Logouale, 520 km northwest of Abidjan.
"I saw them with my own eyes," said one military officer who said he counted 15 bodies at the scene of the battle." But I could not tell if they were rebels or militia because it is very hard to make the distinction," he added.
The same source said some of the pro-government attackers arrested by the UN peacekeepers were just children. Two of them were boys aged 10 and 12. "They could not stop crying and they were calling for their parents," he said.
Two residents in Man, a rebel-controlled city 40 km down the road from Logouale, told IRIN by telephone that they had seen two pick-up trucks loaded with corpses driving towards the local hospital. Dozens of other people had sustained bullet wounds in the early morning engagement, they added.
The rebel New Forces movement, said in a statement that 32 people had died in the battle: two rebel fighters and 30 attackers from the pro-government militia force.
However, the UN and French peacekeeping forces in Cote d'Ivoire, which rounded up the attackers, refused to discuss casualties sustained by the combatants.
"There is no official death toll," Hamadoun Toure, the spokesman for the 6,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Cote, told IRIN. He merely noted that UN troops had arrested 87 of the attackers, who were being held for the time being in Man, and that one Bangladeshi peacekeeper had been injured.
Colonel Henri Aussavy, the official spokesman for France's 4,000-strong peacekeeping force, which operates under separate command, was similarly tight-lipped. "We have no information about the number of victims," he said.
Meanwhile the situation in the area remained tense. The United Nations suspended missions by its personnel to the area amid reports that lorry loads of militant youth supporters of Gbagbo were heading for the town of Daloa, 340 km northwest of Abidjan.
It also emerged that the pre-dawn militia attack on Logouale had been accompanied by an attack on a nearby village inhabited by immigrants from Burkina Faso who are widely viewed as being sympathetic to the rebels. The source who visited the scene of the battle at Logouale said the village had been burned down by the attackers.
The United Nations issued a statement in New York saying tension was also growing in the normally quiet eastern sector of the frontline that divides the rebel-held north of Cote d'Ivoire from the government-held south.
But Toure, the UN spokesman in Abidjan, said he did not information to indicate that anything abnormal was happening there. Residents in Bondoukou, a government-held town on the frontline near the eastern border with Ghana, meanwhile told IRIN that everything was quiet.
Responsibility for the attack on Logouale, the first serious violation of the ceasefire for more than three months, has been claimed by the Ivorian Movement for the Liberation of the West of Cote d'Ivoire (MILOCI).
This is a new pro-Gbagbo militia group which claims to represent members of the Yacouba ethnic group in western Cote d'Ivoire.
The Yacouba are usually considered to be pro-rebel, since General Robert Guei, who headed a military government from 1999 to 2000, was a Yacouba. Guei, who was runner-up to Gbagbo in the 2000 presidential election, was killed, apparently by pro-Gbagbo forces, at the outbreak of civil war in September 2002.
But MILOCI, led by a man known as Pastor Gammi, who has connections with neighbouring Liberia, claims to be a staunchly pro-Gbagbo organisation.
"We are Yacouba from the villages who want to put an end to the suffering of our parents," Gammi told IRIN by telephone. "There is poverty, there is AIDS. We have had enough of this war. We want to plant our manioc, we want the administration to return, we want to sell our cocoa and coffee again at decent prices," he added.
Gammi, who first hit the limelight in an interview with Notre Voie, the newspaper of Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party at the weekend, claimed that his organisation was separate from the Front for the Liberation of the Great West (FLGO), another pro-government militia based in the town of Guiglo, whose members are mainly drawn from the We ethnic group.
Gammi told IRIN that only three of his fighters and a youth sympathiser with his cause were killed in the engagement at Logouale, but there were "scores of rebels dead."
The militia leader said French peacekeepers arrived on the scene with helicopters and armoured vehicles and opened fire on his men. He promised to make the French, despised by pro-Gbagbo militant groups, his next target because they were blocking his attempts to "liberate" the west.
"We will attack them soon because they are helping the rebels," Gammi said.
Aussavy, the French military spokesman, categorically denied Gammi's allegation that French forces had engaged in a fire-fight with his gunmen. "I formally declare that we, the French, did not fire a single shot," he told IRIN. "We just came to support the UN troops who prevented the militia from moving further towards Man."
President Gbagbo has not yet commented on the militia attack on Logouale.
His military spokesman, Colonel Jules Yao Yao, issued a statement saying that the government army was not involved in the attack, but he failed to condemn it as a breach of the ceasefire established between government and rebel forces in May 2003.
"According to the intelligence services, the action was led by certain local people who wanted to free their land," Yao Yao said.
Alan Doss, the acting head of the UN Mission in Cote d'Ivoire (ONUCI) and General Abdoulaye Fall, the Senegalese commander of the UN peacekeeping force in the country, met Gbagbo on Tuesday to discuss the situation and demand strict respect for the demilitarised buffer zone along the frontline which is patrolled by UN and French soldiers.
On Wednesday, the official spokesman of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged all parties in the conflict to rein in the activities of their militia forces and continue to support the mediation efforts of South African President Thabo Mbeki.
Warning against "any steps which could contribute to the deterioration of the situation on the ground" he said: "The Secretary General calls on the parties to rein in all militias and reminds their leaders, as well as those behind them, that they will be held accountable for premeditated attacks."
Annan's spokesman hinted that travel bans and asset freezes could be imposed on selected individuals regarded as hindering the peace process, as provided for in the latest UN Security Council resolution on the conflict in Cote d'Ivoire.
The rebel leadership said in a statement immediately after the attack on Logouale that it considered the incident to be the final nail in the coffin of all international mediation in Cote d'Ivoire, including that of Mbeki.
But hours after the attack took place, Gbagbo sent a special envoy to Abuja to tell Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the current chairman of the AU, that he wanted the organisation to continue its mediation efforts.
The South African Press Association reported that Prime Minister Seydou Diarra, an independent figure who leads a largely powerless government of national reconciliation, would meet Mbeki in Cape Town on Thursday. Mbeki was appointed as a mediator in the conflict by the AU last November.