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Attacks Target Ivory Coast Immigrants Amid Recent Rebellion - 2002-10-02

Attacks on immigrants in Ivory Coast are on the increase as the government of the West African nation steps up a media campaign blaming foreigners for the rebellion.

Since the rebels' initial attacks on September 19, the Ivory Coast government has been broadcasting messages accusing an unidentified neighboring country of supporting the rebels.

Security forces and government supporters have been attacking and setting fire to Abidjan's many shantytowns, which are home to members of the country's large population of immigrant workers from other West African countries.

The government says it is destroying these areas because it believes they may serve as hideouts for anti-government forces.

Most of the victims have been immigrants from Burkina Faso, but people from English-speaking nations have also been targeted and accused of working as mercenaries for the rebels.

Andrew Sugbe, a 28-year-old Liberian, is among scores of Liberians as well as Sierra Leoneans who are taking refuge at a safe house set up for anglophone refugees by an international organizations in one of Abidjan's suburbs. "We saw people burning our houses and beating up people and that's why we ran away. Our things were burned up, and we ran and came here. Since we've been here, we are just here and we can't go out. Each time we go out, we have been embarrassed in the street, and we come back. That's why we're here," he said.

Another man at the safe house, Momoh Sesay, a 42-year-old Sierra Leonean, says he escaped war in his country five years ago and went as a refugee to Liberia, where war was also raging. Finally, he came to Ivory Coast seeing this country as a haven of peace and prosperity. Now, he says he is not so sure it is.

"I thought Cote d'Ivoire was safe, but to my own surprise there are problems here now and I'm in a refugee camp again. I'm afraid of the insecurity that is here presently. In my past experience, we have seen where armed men enter into refugee camps and massacre people so, as I'm here presently, I'm not feeling free. I'm insecure. I'm preparing to go back to Sierra Leone. It's better than here, presently," he said.

For many years, Ivory Coast was considered the most prosperous and stable nation in the region and it welcomed millions of immigrant workers from neighboring countries. With its economy in a steady decline for years, however, Ivorians have grown resentful of people of other countries who now make up one-third of Ivory Coast's population.

Mohammad Chambas, who heads a West African delegation that is working to broker talks between rebels and the government, says he is worried about the government's current publicity campaign against foreigners.

"It's unfortunate, but we know that this is more-or-less a universal phenomenon. When an economy that has been doing well, as is the case of Cote d'Ivoire, and there's distress, xenophobia sets in. The first targets are going to be the foreigners. That is something we have to watch very carefully," he said. "We will hope that Ivorians will be cautious about their reaction. In a country in distress, naturally, emotions and passions are high. Feelings of nationalism and patriotism will be high. But we have to be careful and the government has a lot of responsibility to manage it and manage it carefully and try to eliminate and avoid all tendencies toward xenophobia," Mr. Chambas said. The growing anti-foreigner sentiment was displayed Wednesday as thousands of demonstrators marched in the streets of Abidjan in support of the government. Demonstrators chanted anti-foreigner slogans and threatened to launch more attacks against outsiders, especially those from Burkina Faso.

Officials for the U.N. Refugee agency last week expressed concern that the attacks on foreigners' and their homes could result in a major humanitarian crisis in Abidjan as thousands are displaced.