Thousands Displaced as Violence Escalates in Ivory Coast

BY Saskia de Melker  March 11, 2011 at 5:54 PM EST


In Ivory Coast, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled their homes or escaped to neighboring countries as post-election fighting in the West African nation threatens to escalate into civil war, some regional specialists warn.

Violence erupted after elections in November when incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat to Alassane Ouattara. U.N.-certified results said Ouattara received 54 percent of the vote to Gbagbo’s 46 percent.

The election, which had been postponed many times since 2005 due to disputes over voter registration, was supposed to reunite a country divided since 2002. The political standoff has instead resulted in tension and violence between the factions supporting either side.

This week, the African Union attempted to bring the two sides together and officially recognized Ouattara as president on Friday, but Gbagbo still refuses to relinquish power.

Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images
Women hold portrait of Ouattara at rally. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, riot police fired on a crowd of women marching in downtown Abidjan, calling for Gbagbo to step down, killing at least four demonstrators. The protest was in response to a rally last week in the Abobo district, where gunmen killed seven women.

The latest clashes in the capital and fighting in the western region show the country is spiraling into civil war, said Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, in Dakar, Senegal.

“People placed a lot of faith in the election, and they have now reached a state of desperation,” he said.

The United Nations now estimates as many as 200,000 to 300,000 people are displaced in the capital Abidjan and thousands more have left the country.

And the deteriorating security situation is making it difficult for aid organizations to reach troubled areas, according to the International Organization for Migration. State-run water and electricity in the north and west also were shut off in areas supportive of the opposition “for political reasons,” according to U.N.

“Confusion and anarchy are gaining the upper hand and making it very difficult to supply aid or even get anything beyond piecemeal information” said Jacques Seurt, IOM’s chief of mission in Ivory Coast. Seurt said he and his IOM staff were the only remaining aid agency working in the western region until they were forced to evacuate on Tuesday because of the insecurity.

Refugees are crossing the border into Liberia in increasing numbers, and temporary camps are cropping up along the border. IOM reported that about 8,000 Ivorians arrived in the past few days, bringing the total Ivorian refugees in Liberia to more than 80,000.

In addition to the refugee surge, reports say Liberian mercenaries are being called on to fight with Gbagbo’s faction in Ivory Coast, said Depagne. And that could fuel a civil war that destabilizes the rest of West Africa, he said.

The United Nations has deployed another 2,000 peacekeeping troops to join the 9,000 troops already there. President Obama and the international community have said they condemn the violence and urge Gbagbo to concede power.

But Gbagbo’s Foreign Minister Alcide Djedje said he wouldn’t: “We will never accept if the proposal is for President Gbagbo to step down because he is the elected leader” of Ivory Coast, Djedje said.

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