Ivory Coast edged close to slipping back into full-scale civil war Thursday after government troops bombed a northern stronghold of the New Forces rebel group.
In the commercial capital, Abidjan, members of a pro-government militia known as Young Patriots attacked a United Nations vehicle, burned the offices of opposition newspapers and blocked access to the airport. Militia members also attacked a hotel in Abidjan where New Forces ministers of the coalition government stayed.
Corinne Dufka, a researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, says the Young Patriots is made up of tens of thousands of young people. “We’ve been hearing over the last couple of weeks how a group of them who have formed into a similar militia, or a sister militia as it were, have been training; they’ve been learning how to use AK-47s and so on,” she said.
“Our concern is that in Cote d’Ivoire these groups have shown themselves to be willing to indiscriminately attack civilians, unarmed combatants who have nothing to do with the conflict based on their ethnicity, based on their association or reputed association with the opposition parties and also West African immigrants,” she said.
Ms. Dufka said all sides in the Ivorian civil war have committed atrocities and noted that a mass grave was found in rebel-held territory in June. But she said Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about the situation in Abidjan. “There has been the fomenting of hatred, of xenophobia; the divisions along ethnic lines have just gotten deeper and deeper over the last several years. We’re concerned that now that the war seems to have renewed, that this could just unleash a whole wave of hatred.”
Ms. Dufka also expressed concern about the West African region, where peace only recently came to Liberia and Sierra Leone. “The chain is only as good as its weakest link and at this point that link really is Cote d’Ivoire - particularly because you have this history in the West African sub-region of combatants migrating from conflict to conflict.”
Rebels refused to start disarming by a deadline of October 15th because the government failed to implement the latest peace deal, signed in July. It called for a series of key reforms giving equal rights to many northerners now treated as foreigners to be passed before the end of September.
The rebel insurgency was launched in September 2002, but major fighting stopped quickly with the deployment of French soldiers several weeks later. Their deployment also effectively divided the world's leading cocoa producer in half.
Ms. Dufka spoke with Africa Division reporter Cindy Shiner in Washington.