Residents flee with their belongings after clashes between forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo and supporters of Alassane Ouattara in Abobo, in Abidjan on February 24, 2011.

(Dakar) - Leaders from both sides of the worsening political crisis in Côte d'Ivoire should take all necessary steps to prevent abuses by their forces, Human Rights Watch said today.

Armed forces and militia groups loyal to incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo clashed in the volatile western region on February 24, 2011, with the Forces Nouvelles army. Forces Nouvelles supports Alassane Ouattara, Gbagbo's rival for the presidency, whom international observers have certified as credibly having won the November 2010 presidential election. The new clashes have increased concerns for the protection of the civilian population, Human Rights Watch said.

"Côte d'Ivoire has been down this road before, and it's been marked by grave human rights abuses and war crimes," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Both Gbagbo and Ouattara need to send clear warnings to their troops to protect civilians and prisoners from harm."

The new clashes occurred around small villages in heavily forested area between the towns of Bin-Houyé and Danané on the Liberian border, with credible sources on both sides indicating that they anticipated further fighting in the region in the coming days. Several expressed concern that this signaled an imminent return to the civil armed conflict that engulfed Côte d'Ivoire in 2002 and 2003.

Human Rights Watch has documented massive recruitment by both sides in recent weeks in the financial capital, Abidjan, and in the area where the new clashes occurred. Witnesses have described Gbagbo's forces training youth militias in Abidjan and Duékoué, a town in the far west, while other witnesses have described troop movements by Forces Nouvelles in the west and an expansion of the group into several Abidjan neighborhoods.

Human Rights Watch has also documented the recruitment and deployment of Liberian mercenaries in recent weeks, and credible sources indicate that some Liberian mercenaries fought alongside Gbagbo's forces during the February 24 clash. The possible use of former fighters from Liberia's civil war, in which widespread atrocities were committed, raises further concerns about the security of the civilian population, Human Rights Watch said.

Clashes have also erupted in recent days in the Abidjan neighborhood of Abobo, with heavy fighting between Gbagbo's forces and fighters believed to be linked to the Forces Nouvelles who call themselves the Movement for the Liberation of the Peoples of Abobo-Anyama (MLP-2A). At least 17 people have been reported killed since February 21, with sources inside both camps indicating that the toll could be much higher. Scores of residents in Abobo, particularly an area known as PK-18, are fleeing the area, as continued fighting appeared likely.

During the civil war and its aftermath, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and others documented serious violations of international humanitarian law by security forces and militia loyal to Gbagbo as well as the Forces Nouvelles. These included summary executions, torture, attacks on the UN, and the recruitment of child soldiers. There has been virtually no accountability for these crimes.

In the event of an armed conflict, both sides are obligated to respect international humanitarian law, or the laws of war. The laws of war prohibit deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian property; require the humane treatment of all prisoners, wounded, and civilians in custody; and oblige parties to facilitate access to humanitarian aid. Individuals who deliberately or recklessly commit serious violations of the laws of war are responsible for war crimes.

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