(New York) - The Ivorian government should immediately disband civilian militias and investigate abuses by its security forces and Liberian mercenaries in western Ivory Coast, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 55-page report, "Trapped Between Two Wars: Violence Against Civilians in Western Côte d'Ivoire," documents widespread abuses against civilians in fighting following a September 2002 army mutiny.

The abuses include summary executions, sexual violence against women and girls, and looting of civilian property by Ivorian government troops, government-supported civilian militias, and by the rebel groups.

Both sides have recruited Liberian fighters, some of them from refugee camps in Côte d'Ivoire.

"Civilian militias are a perilous legacy of the war, and they are still active in parts of the west," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Africa division. "Disarming and making them accountable should be a top priority for the government of reconciliation."

Côte d'Ivoire's eight-month conflict was characterized by limited direct fighting between the nominal warring parties, but serious and sometimes systematic abuses against civilians. The new report documents these abuses in the west of the country, where tensions over land and proximity to Liberia exacerbated the conflict.

Ivorian government forces and rebel groups were often responsible for reprisal killings of civilians perceived to support the opposing side, and government-backed civilian militias and Liberian mercenaries fighting on both sides committed several massacres of civilians based mainly on their ethnic affiliation.

In one of the incidents described in the report, Liberian fighters backed by the Ivorian government killed more than sixty civilians in Bangolo in early March of this year.

Virtually all of the victims were from northern ethnic groups perceived to be supporting the Ivorian rebels. Some were shot at close range with their hands tied together.

Less than two weeks later, rebel forces attacked the nearby village of Dah, killing more than 40 civilians, witnesses reported. Some victims died when their homes were burned down around them.

Government-backed civilian militias were also responsible for scores of attacks on West African immigrants to Côte d'Ivoire, most of them targeting the Burkinabé agricultural workers who work the western coffee and cocoa plantations. The Human Rights Watch report documents a pattern of collaboration between the Ivorian security forces and local civilian militias in which Burkinabé civilians were sometimes stopped and shot in broad daylight in the middle of western towns such as Duékoué.

The report calls for an international commission of inquiry to investigate abuses and recommend measures to bring perpetrators to justice, and for an extensive field-based human rights monitoring presence. It also calls on the Ivorian government to immediately stop backing the militias.

Human Rights Watch asserts that the abuses are rooted in ethnic discrimination and a climate of impunity dating from the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2000, in which several hundred people were killed or injured by state security forces and civilian collaborators.

"Unless there is a real commitment to ensure accountability for abuses by all sides-going back to the elections in October 2000 as well as during the recent conflict-it is difficult to see how this very polarized society can be reunited." Takirambudde said.

Background

The conflict in Côte d'Ivoire began on September 19, 2002, when a group of former army officers launched an attempted coup d'état in Abidjan following several years of political instability.

The war escalated late last year when two new Ivorian rebel groups attacked towns in the west of the country along the Liberian border, using Liberian recruits. The Ivorian government then armed its own force of Liberian fighters and began supporting militia groups known as self-defence committees in the rural areas.

By April 2003, western Côte d'Ivoire was overrun by Liberian fighters and civilian militias. Many displaced civilians escaping the zone faced no option but to flee into Liberia, which was gripped by its own civil war.

The human rights abuses by the Liberian fighters and militias fuelled a conflict between two of the main ethnic groups in the west. Dozens of villages were attacked and hundreds of civilians reportedly killed or injured by fighters from both sides.

A May 3, 2003, ceasefire supported by the deployment of French and West African troops has ended active hostilities, and a substantial number of Liberian fighters have left the area. However, some western towns such as Toulepleu remain under the control of Liberian fighters, and many civilians are reluctant to return to their homes as long as bands of armed men still prey on small villages and farms off the main roads.

Parts of the west were cut off from humanitarian aid for almost six months, and an area once renowned for its agricultural productivity now struggles with a collapsed health care system and food shortages.