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In recent days in Côte d'Ivoire, witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch and other confirmed reports indicate nightly raids by security forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo in neighborhoods populated principally by supporters of Alassane Ouattara. Men with guns are abducting people from their homes in these communities in the middle of the night. Desperate families have gone to hospitals, police stations, and prisons in search of information about their loved ones, but many of those abducted remain missing days after they were taken. Several witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported seeing bodies with bullet wounds, leading to strong fears that some of the abducted have been killed. It is difficult to determine how many have been abducted, but UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay reported on December 19 that hundreds of people were missing, in addition to more than 50 killed since the December 16 march - during which at least 20 were killed by security forces and scores more seriously injured as Ouattara supporters marched towards the national television station to demonstrate against its pro-Gbagbo coverage. The number of missing continues to grow each day, as witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch and other credible reports cite pro-Gbagbo security forces operating in tandem with militia and foreign mercenaries with complete impunity.

High-level officials connected with Gbagbo are also using threatening rhetoric, apparently aimed at inciting violence against United Nations and French forces. At a December 18 rally, for example, Charles Blé Goudé, Gbagbo's newly named Minister of Youth who is already on a UN Security Council sanctions list for inciting violence against the UN, called on the Young Patriots - a group with a history of violent behavior against opposition supporters and peacekeepers - to "liberate" Côte d'Ivoire of foreign peacekeepers. UN officials have stated that, since Blé Goudé's call, armed members of the security forces have entered the houses of some staff of the UN mission, UNOCI, in a clear attempt to intimidate them. Human Rights Watch calls on the Human Rights Council to remind those who incite and carry out unlawful attacks against UN peacekeepers that they may be prosecuted for such actions by the International Criminal Court.

Human Rights Watch is likewise concerned that those attempting to report on these mounting abuses have come under attack. On December 18, two men from the Ivorian nongovernmental organization, the Alliance for Change (Alliance pour le changement), were abducted in public during the early evening by armed men in a 4x4 truck. One witness identified the attackers as from the Republican Guard, Gbagbo's personal protection unit. Friends and family of the two men have attempted to ascertain their location without success. Another local organization told Human Rights Watch that it had received threatening phone calls after issuing a public statement on the violence last week. Residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they were terrified of reporting or even of discussing the disappeared, for fear of retribution. Security forces have also blocked UNOCI human rights staff from investigating the allegation that there is a mass grave in an Abidjan neighborhood.

The northern half of Côte d'Ivoire is largely a blind spot for international observers, and the long history of grave human rights abuses by Forces Nouvelles soldiers against the civilian population demands immediate attention in this zone. There are worrying reports from some of the thousands that have fled to Liberia that Forces Nouvelles soldiers have targeted individuals and communities presumed to support Gbagbo.

If human rights abuses continue to escalate, a return to civil war is certainly possible, as stated explicitly today by the Ouattara camp. We are very concerned about the risk of widespread human rights abuses in the coming weeks whether or not there is conflict. Human Rights Watch has received credible reports that hundreds of people have been detained without charge; at least some of the detained are likely to be vulnerable to extrajudicial execution.

The UN Human Rights Council must therefore take immediate and preventive action to curb the possibility of further deterioration of the precarious human rights situation in Côte d'Ivoire. Human Rights Watch urges the Council to appoint a Special Representative of the High Commissioner to begin work immediately and report on an ongoing and regular basis on the human rights situation, and make clear to leaders on both sides that their abuses will be documented, setting the stage for future prosecutions.

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