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Ivory Coast Protests Expose Ethnic Tensions


Ivory Coast's main city, Abidjan, has returned to normal after violent demonstrations paralyzed much of the country's south last week. But in one neighborhood residents are still picking up the pieces, after what supporters of the president said was a political protest that erupted into inter-ethnic fighting.

A giant blue shipping container sits in the middle of the four-lane highway that bisects the Abobo neighborhood of Abidjan.

It has been sitting there since militant supporters of Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo first took to the streets, erecting barricades, and shutting down the city for four days last week.

The road serves as a physical boundary, separating Abobo's ethnic-northern, Dioula, community from the non-Dioula neighborhood.

Just a few meters from the edge of the road, Guinean immigrant, Kone, stands in front of the pile of concrete and charred tin roofing that two days earlier had been his shop. Nearby are the burned remains of a lumber yard, and a dozen smashed taxis and buses.

I sold coffee, meat, just about anything you can eat, he says. Yesterday morning, I came here and there was a crowd. They burned my shop down, he says. Then they went to my house and took everything.

Ivory Coast has been divided in two, with rebels occupying the north and government forces controlling the south since civil war broke out in late 2002. But many villages and neighborhoods are split between southerners and northerners who came to work in the more prosperous south.

Militant leaders of the pro-Gbagbo youth movements that organized the protests say they were political. And most of the violence targeted the country's U.N. peacekeeping mission.

But the close proximity of the two groups in Abobo has created an atmosphere of tension. Just across the road from Kone's burned down shop, is a football field that serves as the local meeting ground for pro-Gbagbo militants. They have even set-up what they call a street parliament.

We do not have any problems mobilizing people, says the head of the body, known as the All-Powerful Congress of Abobo. Each evening we explain to the people what is happening in the country, he says. We have six- or seven-thousand people here every night.

He says Abobo's young supporters of the president met here before heading for the streets, but he denies the protesters targeted their Dioula neighbors.

At two in the morning, it was them who attacked us, he says. What we did was just a reply to their attack. We set fire to their lumber yards and their installations, he says.

But across the road, a young Dioula leader gives a different version of what happened.

In their congress, they said 'Why don't the young Dioula's take part in our demonstrations?', he says. We said, we do not want to be in your demonstrations. So, at their meeting they said we attacked some of their people at the train station, he explains.

They were armed and came after us, he adds. They wanted to attack the mosque. We had nothing, so we just threw rocks.

Both sides say police intervened to stop the violence and, though, there are claims of killings in both communities, reports vary.

As for Kone, he says he is not yet sure how he is going to start rebuilding.

I do not have anything left, he says. I cannot work now. I do not have anything to eat, he says. They even took our clothes.

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