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Refugees Still Stream From Togo to Benin

Faure Gnassingbe (Feb. 2005 file photo)
Hundreds of Togolese are fleeing every day into Benin, more than one month after disputed presidential elections that gave victory to Faure Gnassingbe, the son of the country's late, four-decade ruler, Gnassingbe Eyadema.

After crossing the border into Benin, by waterways, the bush or the beach to avoid Togolese soldiers, many of Togo's refugees go directly to the capital, Cotonou, where they register with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

One of them there says he was beaten by soldiers several hours after Togo's polls closed on election day, April 24, inside a church in an opposition stronghold of the capital, Lome.

He says he immediately fled the Togolese capital, and sought treatment at another church, 50 kilometers away, before being well enough to travel to Benin this week.

On the way, he says, he was again threatened by soldiers, so he got help from locals to get to Benin, without going through roadblocks.

He says he believes Mr. Gnassingbe cheated and that is why the military has gone on a rampage to keep him in power. On voting day, soldiers could be seen taking away ballot boxes from opposition areas, setting off instant riots.

Another refugee says he left four days after the vote. He said, first, the military and then militias started going into opposition neighborhoods, breaking down doors and beating up young men, taking some of them away.

He said it became too dangerous to stay.

The young man appeals for help from the United States and Europe, saying a new election is needed. He says the West African grouping, ECOWAS, which organized the April election was not up to the task.

The U.S. government has said there were serious credibility issues with the election, but appealed to all Togolese to avoid more violence. The State Department has called on rival Togolese politicians to join a government of national unity, which Mr. Gnassingbe has been trying to form.

But Togo's opposition says, before any meetings, all measures must be taken for refugees to return.

Many Togolese opposition supporters also fled to neighboring Ghana. In Benin and Ghana, it is estimated there are nearly 35,000 refugees, most of them staying with friends and relatives in cities, or near the borders.

The United Nations has set up two camps in Benin, which are starting to fill up. It says it needs $5 million from donor nations in the coming months, or else, it warns, Benin will face its own humanitarian crisis.

In Togo, some villages in the south have been emptied out, while in Lome, activist Pastor Nicolas Lawson says youth activists and opposition media are being silenced.

"I think it's quiet, you know, but people are complaining, because they are still arresting people, they are still worrying people. They destroyed some radio stations, and so, it's terrible. How can you say you won an election by 60 percent, and you cannot let the people at least criticize. Democracy means free expression, democracy means free press and so on," he said.

The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights says what it calls a manhunt still takes place at night. It has urged the United Nations and African Union to order an inquiry into alleged human rights abuses, including kidnappings and executions.

Togo's Human Rights League says more than 800 people died in violence that followed the election. Western diplomats in Lome have given more conservative numbers of up to 150 people killed.

Mr. Gnassingbe has set up a government investigation. Human rights activists and opposition leaders are dismissing it as not credible.