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Frontline Ivory Coast town fears new civil war

Gbagbo's Ivory Coast army: 'UN peacekeepers back rebels'
Abidjan (AFP) Dec 17, 2010 - The military forces backing isolated Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo accused UN peacekeepers Friday of backing rebel fighters and said they no longer considered them a neutral force. The army's claim came after United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said letting Gbagbo stay on as president would be a "mockery of democracy" and warned against any attack on UN troops in Ivory Coast. "The Defence and Security Forces of the Ivory Coast call on the national and international community to bear witness to the fact that ONUCI no longer plays the role of a neutral force," spokesman Colonel Babri Gohourou said.

In a statement from the general staff, read on state media, he accused United Nations Mission in Ivory Coast (ONUCI), of smuggling rebel fighters across a 2003 ceasefire line and supplying them with arms and ammunition. Both Gbagbo and his long-time rival Alassane Ouattara claimed victory in Ivory Coast's presidential last month. Ouattara was recognised as president by the United Nations, but Gbagbo remains determined to cling on to power. Ouattara's government is now based in a luxury resort, the Golf Hotel, in suburban Abidjan, protected by former rebel fighters from the New Forces and 800 UN "blue helmet" peacekeeping troops equipped with armoured cars. The hotel is surrounded by pro-Gbagbo troops and armed police. On Thursday, New Forces rebels attempted to break out and march towards state television. A gun battle erupted, and the former rebels were forced to retreat.

The UN has denied supporting the New Forces, but has recognised Ouattara's government and is protecting the Golf Hotel, where armed former rebels work as would-be prime minister Guillaume Soro's security detail. "Let me say clearly and directly: any attempt to obstruct UN operations or blockade the Golf Hotel is totally unacceptable," Ban said Friday. Ban said UN peacekeepers would "protect the civilian population and... protect the safety and security of key government officials including Mr Ouattara and other key election commission officials." Both sides in Ivory Coast's stand-off have made extreme claims. Gbagbo's supporters accuse the United Nations and Ivory Coast's former colonial power France of plotting genocide, and the New Forces say the government has recruited brutal Liberian mercenaries.
by Staff Writers
Bouake, Ivory Coast (AFP) Dec 17, 2010
In the frontline base town of Ivory Coast's former northern rebellion on Friday, worrying tales of killings in the south revived fears of a return to civil war.

Bouake is headquarters of the New Forces, the former rebel movement that was drawn into a power-sharing peace deal but now finds itself backing a president who has been unable to persuade his defeated rival to step down.

Under election results approved last month by the United Nations and now recognised globally, Alassane Ouattara should be president of Ivory Coast and the leader of the New Forces, Guillaume Soro, should be prime minister.

Instead, both are holed up in an Abidjan golf resort under UN protection, as the incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo clings onto power and deployed troops and police to face down pro-Ouattara protesters.

Bouake and the mainly-Muslim north of Ivory Coast backs Ouattara, but reports of killings in Abidjan and of clashes on the 2003 ceasefire line between New Forces fighters and Gbagbo's regular army has raised concern.

"What's going on is really unpleasant, and if it goes on that only increases the chances of civil war," said Sizikolo Sanoko, a young salesman working for a bookmaker, taking bets in street kiosk in downtown Bouake.

Gbagbo's government insists its forces in Abidjan, the commercial capital 280 kilometres (175 miles) south of Bouake, were forced to open fire Thursday on pro-Ouattara protesters in order to maintain public order.

But up here, the talk is of "massacres" of northerners who headed south to look for work and faced prejudice from southern groups who back Gbagbo.

Soro and Ouattara -- who is nicknamed ADO after his initials -- are popular here, but if war breaks out again Bouake will again be near the frontline and some are concerned their heroes have started something they can't control.

"It's very serious," said Sanoko. "I support ADO, but calling people into the street, it's not very responsible."

Violence hasn't yet spread to Bouake, but the streets were empty and the town almost dead, with banks, insurance firms, public services and many private businesses shut down.

Adama Sangare, who works for an AIDS aid agency and was stood with a radio pressed to ear waiting for news, said: "Everyone in Bouake is frightened, and we don't know what's happening in Abidjan with our relatives."

For young mother-of-two Sali Coulibaly, however, there's only one way to make Ivory Coast safe again. "Gbagbo marched over dead bodies to get where he is, and ever since there's been violence," she declared.

"We want peace, and peace means ADO! Get rid of Gbagbo," she said, shaking with are under her elegant tailored matching outfit.

But several thousand northerners who had the same instinct as Sali were met with a rude surprise. On Thursday, they set off in convoy in a bid to cross the ceasefire line and join their champion in the south. They never made it.

Their route was blocked by pro-Gbagbo forces, and violence erupted. Armed New Forces (FN) fighters joined battle, and a fierce fire fight erupted outside the town of Tiebissou just 40 kilometres south of Bouake.

The scene and the actors were reminiscent of the 2002-2003 civil war.

"On a military level, we were compelled to react. The interim death toll is one dead on our side, and a few wounded who will pull through," said a member of the FN general staff, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But at Bouake's main hospital, an AFP reporter saw six wounded, one of whom seemed to be a critical condition.

"We saw 30 wounded yesterday, from Tiebissou, most of them with bullet wounds and some with compound fractures," said regional health director Dr Karim Kouyate.

But even this doesn't damp the ardour of some ADO supporters, like 36-year-old shop keeper Abdoulaye Sylla, furious that after ten years in power Gbagbo continues to "hold the country back" -- even confrontation is better.

earlier related report
DR Congo rights activist killing to be tried by lower court
Kinshasa (AFP) Dec 16, 2010 - A military court trying eight policemen for the killing of Democratic Republic of Congo human rights activist Floribert Chebeya on Thursday rejected demands by his family that the case be heard by a higher tribunal.

The ruling will mean, according to the family, that the man they consider to be the prime suspect, police chief General John Numbi, cannot be tried, since generals can only be tried by the senior military court.

Numbi, who has been suspended from duty, appeared at an earlier hearing on November 12, but only as a witness.

Judges described the applications for the trial to be moved and for bail as "unfounded" and adjourned the case until December 23.

Chebeya, 47, president of the human rights group Voice of the Voiceless (La Voix des sans Voix - VSV), was found dead on June 2 in his car with his hands tied behind his back on the outskirts of Kinshasa after a scheduled meeting, which never took place, with General Numbi.

Chebeya's chauffeur, Fidele Bazana, who had accompanied him, is still reported missing and his body has never been found.

VSV and Banzana's family, along with the family of Chebeya, are also civil parties in the case and supported the request for the trial to be heard by a higher court.

Apart from the chief of special services of police, Colonel Daniel Mukalay, the other defendants include a major, a lieutenant, a second lieutenant and a warrant officer. Two majors and a warrant officer are being tried in their absence.

All eight are accused, according to the charge sheet, of criminal association, kidnapping, murder, assassination, terrorism and purloining arms. The three absent men are also on trial for desertion.

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