Seven UN peacekeepers from Niger were killed in an ambush in western Cote d'Ivoire, in the deadliest attack on the force since its deployment in 2004, a UN spokesman said Friday.
Deputy Defence Minister Paul Koffi Koffi said the attackers crossed over from neighbouring Liberia, adding that two Ivorian soldiers and at least one civilian may also have been killed, reports AFP.
"According to an initial tally, seven Niger peacekeepers lost their lives in an ambush in the west of the country," the spokesman said, adding the UN denounced the "very serious violation of international law".
UN leader Ban Ki-moon said he was "outraged" by the killings of the peacekeepers and warned that more UN troops "are still in danger".
"Even tonight, after the attack, more than 40 peacekeepers remain with the villagers in this remote region to protect them from this armed group," the UN chief said. "My thoughts are with these brave peacekeepers and the community they are protecting."
"I call on the government of Cote d'Ivoire to do its utmost to identify the perpetrators and hold them accountable for this deadly attack," the UN leader said.
According to a UN source, the peacekeepers were patrolling in an area between two villages after hearing rumours of an imminent attack on communities in the region.
"There's panic in the villages, many are fleeing into the forest, others are heading for Liberia," a resident of Para village told AFP by phone.
The mayor of nearby Tai village, Desire Gnonkonte, confirmed that residents were fleeing.
Cote d'Ivoire's west is by far the most unstable part of the country and has been plagued by deadly attacks since a political and military crisis that started at the end of 2010 and left some 3,000 people dead throughout the country.
In a report published Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said at least 40 people had been killed since July 2011 in raids the group blamed on fighters loyal to Cote d'Ivoire's ex-president, Laurent Gbagbo.
Gbagbo was captured on April 11, 2011 and has been in custody in The Hague since November on allegations of crimes against humanity.
"The attackers came from Liberia," Koffi said, adding that they numbered around 50 and had crossed the river that marks the border before descending on the villages of Saho, Para and Nigre.
"We think these are the same groups who have been responsible for all the attacks in the area in recent months," he said.