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Ivory Coast Ethnic Violence Divides Western City

In Ivory Coast's volatile western region, communities remain divided following a week of violence between rival ethnic groups that the United Nations says left at least 65 people dead. Thousands have fled the region around the town of Duekoue, others have taken refuge in the local Catholic mission, or in neighborhoods they consider secure.

A group of men from the village of Guitrozon, on the outskirts of the western town of Duekoue, walk among burned houses, pointing out the scenes of violence last week that they say left more than 40 people dead in this small village alone.

"There were four killed here," says village spokesman Sylvain Goulehi. "Another two just here and another two over there. We sent eight injured people to the hospital. There were eight killed on this path. Hardened blood still stains the concrete floors of many homes."

The Ivorian army says victims of the attack in Guitrozon, which began at three in the morning last Wednesday, were shot or hacked to death with machetes. Others were said to have been burned alive in their homes. Villagers say about 10 of their neighbors are still missing.

The victims were identified as ethnic Gueres, a group which has been largely favorable to Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo.

On Friday, the villagers buried their dead in a mass grave near the main road, next to an Ivorian army checkpoint, less than 50 meters from the entrance to Guitrozon. Witnesses say the killing only stopped after several hours, with the arrival of a contingent of United Nations peacekeepers.

Villagers say the government troops never intervened. And Mr. Goulehi says he wants to know why.

It's a question he asks himself, he says. He says they immediately sent someone to the checkpoint when the attacks started. The soldiers fired a few shots in the air, he says. But Mr. Goulehi says they never entered the village.

Another attack the same night in the village of Petit Duekoue, less than a kilometer away, left more dead.

The attack against the villages and their local ethnic Guere population sparked a wave of reprisal killings targeting Dioulas, a term given to northerners, in the nearby town of Duekoue the following day. On one street on the edge of town, eight people were killed, according to the U.N. mission.

One local man, who returned to the now empty street to see what was left after the violence, says he does not understand what happened. The street has always been ethnically mixed, he says.

"Those are the homes of Dioulas," he says pointing at the houses, where last week's killings took place. Gueres live next door, he says. And there are other homes owned by Baoules, another of Ivory Coast's southern ethnic groups, and the ethnicity of the independence President Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

"Until last week, the different groups always lived together in peace in this area," he says. But now, Gueres stay in predominantly Guere areas. And Dioulas, he says, stay in Dioula neighborhoods, where they stand watch at night against more reprisals. According to officials at a local hospital, at least three people were killed in a predominantly Dioula neighborhood during the night from Sunday to Monday.

Thousands fled the violence last week, heading south to less volatile areas, or north to the U.N.-patrolled buffer zone that separates the warring sides in Ivory Coast's nearly three-year civil war. Most of the surrounding villages have been abandoned. But some people still remain in Duekoue.

The head of the local Catholic mission, Padre Cesco, says as many as 20,000 traditionally Christian Gueres have taken refuge inside the complex. He says he is having trouble taking care of them.

Padre Cesco says his mission is trying to calm them. But he says, he cannot tell them their security is guaranteed 100 percent if they return home.

U.N. officials have not been able to identify the attackers in either the Guitrozon massacre or the reprisal killings. President Gbagbo's supporters have accused traditional fighters from the north and rebels, while the rebels themselves have accused pro-Gbagbo western militias. Both sides say the violence has nothing to do with the civil war, but that it could derail even further the much delayed planned disarmament.

In Guitrozon, some of the village men have returned to defend the bodies of the dead and what is left of their homes. At night, they say, they sleep outside around a fire and keep watch.

One man says they are no longer afraid. Their brothers, he says, are already gone. He says, they consider themselves dead already.