Cote d'Ivoire: Urban Exodus as Violence Escalates

Abidjan — Hundreds of families have fled their homes in parts of Abidjan amidst clashes between armed groups supporting Côte d'Ivoire's two rival leaders, Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo.

The fresh violence in the commercial capital's Abobo District comes as fighting hits parts of the interior, particularly around the political capital, Yamoussoukro, which is held by forces loyal to Gbagbo but lies directly south of territory held by former rebels.

As aid groups appeal for funding to help tens of thousands of Ivoirians who have fled to neighbouring countries, many to escape violence in the volatile west, residents of Abidjan tell IRIN the city is looking more and more like a war zone.

"With the radicalization of our two leaders tribalism is intensifying," said one youth.

On 24 and 25 February men, women and children could be seen along Abidjan's main highways as people fled Abobo and neighbouring Anyama District, in the north of Abidjan. Local security officials said at least 2,300 people had fled as of 24 February; the UN Refugee Agency in Abidjan said it had no figures for the urban displacement as yet.

Ouattara's prime minister, Guillaume Soro, had called for a nationwide march for 21 February to force out incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo "as in Egypt and Tunisia". Security forces reportedly fired at protesters who heeded the call, killing several. The UN denounced a "disproportionate use of force" including the use of heavy weapons in the crackdown on demonstrators. The following day security forces loyal to Gbagbo were reportedly ambushed by armed men in Abobo and residents say there has been heavy fighting between the two sides since.

"My one-year-old is just howling incessantly," Séraphin Kouamé, a teacher from Anyama, told IRIN. "We walked three kilometres to escape." He said they will stay with family and friends in Yopougon.

Abobo resident Armand Ouayéré told IRIN: "For two days my family and I were holed up in the house - we couldn't leave. The children were traumatized by the nightly gunfire. Look at how thin we all are; we had three loaves of bread and two kilos of rice between us and the neighbours."

He said as they tried to leave Abobo, they came upon armed men in civilian clothing at a makeshift roadblock. "They took the 8,300 CFA francs (US$17) I had left and our mobile phones. I worry that all our homes will be pillaged once night falls."

Francine Malan, a health worker in Abobo, told IRIN from inside her home that people were unable to leave their houses. "Security forces are patrolling. They are enforcing a curfew even during the day. Our food has run out and we cannot even get to the market or even a shop next door.

"We are just waiting for a chance to leave this neighbourhood. The constant gun-fighting is just unbearable."

The charity SOS Children's Villages has evacuated children and mothers from its facility in Abidjan to another city. "If the situation further deteriorates, the evacuation of all children to Togo will be considered," the NGO said in a 25 February communiqué.

People in many areas of Abidjan said they live in fear. In a neighbourhood of Yopougon armed men in military uniform broke into an apartment building the night of 21 February and beat up all the men inside, a resident told IRIN.

"It was around 11:30 pm or midnight; I was sleeping," said the woman who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals. "I am hiding even to talk with you."

She said about 10 men in military uniform - "I was too shook up to count them" - banged on all the doors in the apartment complex saying they had orders to search for "rebels" allegedly hiding there.

"They ordered all the men - young and old - to their knees in the yard. They beat them with shoes and belts. They beat them all over their bodies. They shouted, 'It's you - you are the ones making trouble'."

She said women and children were standing by, crying. "We couldn't calm the children - everyone was crying and traumatized.

"One of the men hit my brother with a gun, knocking him unconscious."

In the wake of the recent violence Human Rights Watch called on both the Ouattara and Gbagbo camps to prevent abuses by their forces.

"Civilians have long borne the brunt of armed conflict in Côte d'Ivoire," David Bekele, HRW Africa director, said in a 25 February communiqué. "Commanders from both sides need to ensure that their fighters do not commit abuses, or they risk prosecution for war crimes."

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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