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UN says western Ivory Coast displaced afraid to go home

By AFP
By AFP

6/20/2012 9:50:02 PM -

ABIDJAN (AFP) - The UN said Wednesday that people displaced by deadly cross-border raids in western Ivory Coast are afraid to go home, as Liberia denied launching an ethnic witch-hunt over the attacks.

The United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Ivory Coast, Ndolamb Ngokwey, said some 13,000 people -- mostly women and children -- had fled their homes because of the cross-border raids earlier this month, which left 22 dead, including seven UN peacekeepers from Niger.

"A climate of fear has taken hold and is causing many villagers to prolong their displacement or even flee to other regions," he said in a statement.

Ngokwey "observed the deterioration of the situation of the people of western Ivory Coast" during a visit Wednesday to the southwestern town of Tai, where several thousand people have sought refuge from the violence, the statement said.

Ngokwey called on the Ivorian authorities to restore security to the unstable western border region, which has been racked by violence for the past year.

President Alassane Ouattara's government has blamed the cross-border raids on Liberia-based loyalists of former president Laurent Gbagbo, whose refusal to step down after losing a 2010 election to Ouattara unleashed a bloody four-month power struggle.

Liberia for its part denied Wednesday that it was targeting certain ethnic groups in its investigation into the raids.

The Liberian government last week named eight Liberians and two Ivorians as "persons of interest" wanted over the attacks.

Two of the Liberians have since handed themselves in.

All of those named are from the eastern Grand Gedeh county bordering Ivory Coast.

In the past week two political figures from the region have accused the government of a witch-hunt against the people of their county.

One of these, former parliamentary speaker George Dweh, told journalists: "There was no investigation conducted by state security. These people were declared wanted based on their ethnic background."

But the government said in a statement that "its action to issue an alert for 10 persons is well-intentioned; and not about a particular ethnic group.

"The government therefore warns in a very serious tone those putting (an) ethnic face on the security measures being taken to secure Liberia's borders to desist as their actions have the propensity to ignite unnecessary ethnic sentiments in the body politic."

Liberia is recovering from a bloody 1989-2003 civil war largely fueled by ethnic tensions and hatred.

Liberian mercenaries were widely implicated in the post-election fighting in Ivory Coast, which claimed some 3,000 lives.

Diehard Gbagbo supporters are believed to have fled to Liberia after the conflict.

The two governments are working together to deal with the unstable border zone.

On Thursday 41 Liberians and Ivorians will face an extradition hearing to stand trial for their alleged role in the conflict.

The Ivorian army has deployed several hundred troops in the western border region since the cross-border raids began, and the UN's peacekeeping mission in the country, ONUCI, has stepped up its support to the military.

ONUCI on Wednesday condemned what it called an increase in violent political discourse in the wake of the cross-border raids and a claim by the Ivorian government earlier this month that it had foiled plans for a coup by exiled army officers loyal to Gbagbo.

The peacekeeping mission "is worried by the return of a new wave of virulent statements and excesses of language," it said in a statement.

ONUCI chief Bert Koenders called on Ivorians to "avoid excesses of language that could put the country's democratic gains in danger."