© 2011 Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – Armed men who supported former Côte d’Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo waged the second deadly attack in two months near the Liberian border, killing at least 23 men, women, and children in small villages, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations mission in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) to reinforce its troops in the historically tense region, which the mission has committed to do, and to increase patrols along secondary roads to enhance security for residents.

“These armed groups appear determined to wreak havoc on a population that has already suffered greatly from Côte d’Ivoire’s deadly post-election crisis,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “UN peacekeeping missions in Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia need to assist state authorities in preventing more bloodshed.”

The latest attack took place on September 15, 2011, in the villages of Zriglo and Nigré, around 25 kilometers south of the Ivoirian town of Taï. Human Rights Watch was not able to interview direct witnesses, but residents of Taï, as well as Ivorian and international media outlets, said that attackers caught villagers by surprise in the middle of the night. Reuters reported that at least 23 people were killed. The Ivorian Defense Ministry told Reuters that 19 West African immigrants and two Republican Forces soldiers were among the victims.

A Human Rights Watch researcher was in Taï on September 12 and 13 and documented a similar raid that occurred in the area on July 18, 2011, in which at least eight people were killed. Based on victim interviews from the July attack and Ivorian and international media reports of the September 15 raid, the perpetrators in both incidents appear to be Ivoirian youth who served as pro-Gbagbo militiamen during the country’s six-month post-election conflict. The victims of the raids all came from the “non-native” groups – West African immigrants and Ivorian ethnic groups traditionally from other parts of the country – that tended to support the current president, Alassane Ouattara.

Survivors of the July 18 attack told Human Rights Watch that dozens of armed young men emerged from the dense forest at around 1 a.m. They attacked several small camps near the village of Ponan where families live while working on their rubber tree plantations. Several witnesses said they recognized attackers as youth from a local ethnic group that heavily supported Gbagbo during the election. When armed forces loyal to Ouattara took control of the area in early April, these youth fled across the border to Liberia, from where they now appear to be targeting villages.

One witness described attackers sticking a gun barrel in the mouth of a man whom they’d trapped; they then shot him. A Burkinabé man living in the area was found with his throat slit. Victims included children and women, including the wife of a man interviewed by Human Rights Watch:

It was 1 a.m. We were all asleep and they took us by surprise. I heard shooting and screams and we ran out to try to get to the bush. Some of [the attackers] had Kalashes [Kalashnikov rifles], some had hunting rifles. They were so many. As we were running, they shot my wife from behind. She was killed…. When we came back to the village several days later, our houses had been pillaged. They took all that I had.

Victims of the July attack told Human Rights Watch that in the months after the contested 2010 presidential run-off, pro-Gbagbo militiamen repeatedly threatened to kill them should Ouattara take power. Several residents said that land issues were also a likely motivation in these attacks. Tension between “native” and “non-native” groups over land has long marked the western and southwestern regions of the country and has led to inter-communal violence on several occasions, Human Rights Watch said.

In September 13 interviews with Human Rights Watch, victims of the July raid said they still had not returned to their homes or to work on their rubber tree plantations. They said they frequently heard gunshots in the forest, including just several days before Human Rights Watch interviewed them. One victim from the first attack said ominously, “We’re hearing echoes that there will be another attack soon.”

Residents said that soon after the July attack, the UN peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire placed a battalion in Taï. The UN’s considerable reinforcement of the country’s west was a much-needed and important move, Human Rights Watch said. A Human Rights Watch researcher saw UN peacekeepers moving regularly along the main road between Taï and Guiglo, a town to the north. Residents said that the peacekeepers’ activity was noticeably less prominent, however, along the southern road toward Tabou – where the secondary, dirt roads are in far worse condition. The September attack occurred in this area south of Taï.

On September 10, President Ouattara oversaw a mini-summit of the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) to discuss security issues along the Liberian-Ivorian border, which has long been marked by the cross-border flow of mercenaries, militia groups, and small arms. The leaders called on ECOWAS to cooperate with the UN to ensure security for Liberia’s October 11 presidential elections. Côte d’Ivoire has announced its legislative elections will be held in mid-December, more than one year after the presidential run-off that sparked a conflict marked by grave human rights abuses by both sides.

The border area is notoriously difficult to monitor, because of its length and the thick vegetation that marks the region. In an important move, both the UN and the Ivorian government have said that they will deploy additional forces to the area in the aftermath of the September 15 attack, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch called on the UN missions to increase patrols along secondary roads near the border and to ensure consistent communication between area commanders from the peacekeeping forces in Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia. Human Rights Watch also called for the UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire to secure the authorization to fly helicopter missions at night and to conduct cross-border missions, in order to further discourage raids.

Human Rights Watch called on the Ivorian government to ensure that its armed forces follow human rights obligations – and refrain from engaging in torture and extrajudicial killings as was common during the conflict – as they apprehend attackers and reestablish security. Several Taï residents told Human Rights Watch that, after the July 18 attack, the Republican Forces detained a local pro-Gbagbo village leader and fired between his legs during questioning on the attack. Human Rights Watch was separately told that at least 40 Dozos – traditional hunters from northern Côte d’Ivoire who were implicated by human rights organizations in extrajudicial killings against pro-Gbagbo groups during the conflict – created a camp in the region, further heightening concerns of vigilante justice.

“Côte d’Ivoire’s armed forces must ensure that those who commit attacks, whatever their political affiliation, face their victims before a court of law, not be subject to the summary executions that too often marked the Ivorian crisis,” Bekele said.