Thursday, December 30, 2010
Image via WikipediaU.N. Mass Grave Probe Obstructed In Ivory Coast : NPR
Reports of dozens of bodies being dumped near a large forest in Ivory Coast first emerged as human rights groups warned that security forces loyal to incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo were abducting political opponents after the disputed election.
Now the United Nations believes up to 80 bodies may have been moved to a building nestled among shacks in a pro-Gbagbo neighborhood. Investigators have tried to go there several times, and even made it as far as the building's front door before truckloads of men with guns showed up and forced them to leave.
Simon Munzu, the head of the U.N. human rights division, urged security forces Thursday to allow investigators inside. Gbagbo's government has repeatedly denied the existence of mass graves following violence over the disputed presidential runoff that has left at least 173 confirmed dead already.
"We would be the very first to say that these stories are false if they turn out to be false,'' Munzu said. "Our findings on the matter and their announcement to the world would have a greater chance of being believed than these repeated denials.''
Human rights groups accuse Gbagbo's security forces of abducting and torturing political opponents since the disputed Nov. 28 vote, which the U.N. said Gbagbo lost. U.N. investigators have cited dozens of reported cases of disappearances, and nearly 500 arrests and detentions.
Human Rights Watch said earlier this month that witnesses had described nightly raids in which people were dragged away in official vehicles to undisclosed locations.
The United Nations has said that security forces accompanied by masked men with rocket launchers also had prevented U.N. personnel from reaching the building. Munzu said witnesses have said between 60 and 80 bodies are believed to be inside.
A second mass burial site is believed to be located near Gagnoa in the interior of the country, the U.N. said. Those suspected victims are in addition to the 173 deaths already confirmed by the U.N. Gbagbo's allies say that several dozen of them are police or security forces killed by protesters.
The reports of mass graves raise new concerns about human rights abuses as Ivory Coast's neighbors discuss how to remove Gbagbo from power. Regional leaders initially threatened to consider military force if Gbagbo did not step down following a high-level delegation visit Tuesday.
ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, has sent combat troops to several nations in the past two decades. Defense officials from the member states met Wednesday in Abuja, Nigeria, where the bloc is based.
However, the regional bloc instead decided to give negotiations more time, saying mediators would return to Ivory Coast next week.
Meanwhile, a fiery member of Gbagbo's Cabinet has urged supporters to seize a hotel where the internationally recognized winner of last month's election has been organizing a shadow government under U.N. protection.
Charles Ble Goude reportedly said that Alassane Ouattara, whom the United Nations declared the winner of the Nov. 28 vote, and his prime minister "have until January 1, 2011 to pack their bags and leave the Golf Hotel.''
"He who attacks Laurent Gbagbo will sorely regret it,'' the newspaper Le Temps reported Ble Goude as telling Gbagbo supporters in the Yopougon neighborhood, where a U.N. patrol was surrounded by a mob on Tuesday and one peacekeeper was wounded by a machete. "No one can remove our president from power.''
Ble Goude is Gbagbo's minister of youth and employment, known as the "street general'' for organizing a violent anti-French and anti-U.N. gang that terrorized the foreign population in Ivory Coast in 2004-2005. The beachside Golf Hotel is protected by some 800 blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers and hundreds of rebels loyal to Ouattara.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is "deeply alarmed'' by Ble Goude's comments. Nesirky said that the troops guarding the hotel are authorized "to use all necessary means'' to protect their own personnel, the officials at the hotel and any other civilians staying there.
Ban also warns that an attack on the hotel could provoke widespread violence that could re-ignite civil war, and he calls on those planning to participate in the attack to "refrain from such dangerous irresponsible action,'' Nesirky said.
Under a peace deal after the 2002-2003 civil war, the U.N. was tasked with certifying the results of the election. The U.N. declared Ouattara the winner, echoing the country's own electoral commission chief. Gbagbo insists he won, pointing out that the Ivory Coast constitutional council declared him the winner. The council, which is led by a Gbagbo ally, did so after invalidating half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds in the north.
The United States and other world powers have insisted Gbagbo hand over power to Ouattara. For many, the credibility of the international community is at stake if it is unable to ensure that Ouattara takes power.
Chaos in Ivory Coast, once a West African economic powerhouse with skyscrapers dominating this seaside commercial center, already has kept Gbagbo in power five years beyond his mandate.
Ivory Coast's new U.N. ambassador, Youssoufou Bamba, said he is worried about his country's future and is consulting with members of the Security Council ahead of a meeting next week on ways to help Ouattara assume power.
"We are on the brink of genocide,'' Bamba said after presenting his diplomatic credentials to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York.