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Abidjan's Shantytown Residents Deny Role in Current Conflict

In Ivory Coast's main city, Abidjan, government forces are continuing to destroy shantytowns housing mostly poor West African immigrants. The Ivorian government denies targeting foreigners, but says the shantytowns could harbor rebels responsible for the September 19 coup attempt, which has plunged the once-peaceful nation into chaos. But, local residents say they are being blamed for a conflict they had no role in starting.

As late as Thursday afternoon, the long row of immigrant-owned wooden shack garages and restaurants along the road leading to Agbon shantytown in central Abidjan was open for business, as usual. By early Friday morning, the shacks were just a pile of smashed, smoldering wood, showcasing the violence that has rocked dozens of immigrant areas in and around the city for the past three weeks.

Most residents are afraid to talk to foreigners, but one witness, an immigrant from neighboring Burkina Faso, says a group of paramilitary policemen carrying hammers and clubs showed up during the night, demanding money. Those who resisted were robbed of their belongings and their shops and homes were destroyed. Some of those who did not resist watched their shops and homes disappear anyway.

A few kilometers away, at another shantytown called Aghien Village, men, women and children walk aimlessly around smoking holes in the ground where their houses once stood. Odd bits of clothing and shoes are strewn around the holes.

Another immigrant from Burkina Faso, who identified himself as Salif Yigo, says the police came Monday, ordering everyone to leave the area.

"The police shouted that they were going to burn down everything we left behind," he said. "But they came in the morning, when we were at work. We didn't have a chance to grab anything and everything burned."

The government of President Laurent Gbagbo has justified the raids as part of an on-going effort to rid the country of shantytowns, which are illegal. It insists security forces are also destroying homes to make certain they do not become a haven for rebels and rebel sympathizers. But Salif Yago believes there is another reason.

He says since September 19, the police have been harassing people from Burkina Faso and other neighboring countries for no reason, accusing them of destroying the country. The Ivory Coast government has repeatedly accused foreign countries of being behind the rebellion. It claims the rebels - who now hold much of the north and center of the country had the backing of a "rogue state" which many Ivorians believe is Burkina Faso.

That country has denied any role in the coup attempt, but that has apparently not lessened government suspicion of Burkinabes and other foreigners in Ivory Coast.

Some five million West Africans including three million from Burkina Faso have flocked to Ivory Coast in recent decades to work on cocoa and fruit plantations or to seek their fortunes in cities like Abidjan. Human rights activists charge the government is encouraging the targeting of immigrants for extortion, intimidation, and persecution.

On Friday, Burkina Faso issued a warning to Ivory Coast saying it is ready to face what it called all eventualities if attacks against its citizens did not stop.

President Gbagbo denies that his government is targeting foreigners. In a nationally televised speech on Tuesday, he urged Ivorians to stop attacking immigrant communities, saying the enemy is not foreigners, but rather, the army rebels.

But the residents of Aghien shantytown are not so sure. A frightened woman from Togo whispers that she heard the police promising to come back to finish burning down the shanties. "Where will I go then?" she asks.