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HRW: Gbagbo Security Forces Committing Gross Rights Violations in Ivory Coast

People fearing for their safety evacuate the Abobo district of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, February 24, 2011
People fearing for their safety evacuate the Abobo district of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, February 24, 2011

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Anne Look

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says African Union mediators in Ivory Coast should work to end what it calls "gross violations of human rights" by security forces loyal to incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo, as violence continues to escalate in the country's commercial capital and troubled western region.

The United Nations Mission to Ivory Coast said Thursday that Ivorian troops clashed with northern rebels early Thursday in the country's west near the border with Liberia.

The U.N. Mission said this fighting constitutes a breach of a cease-fire agreement made six years ago and marks an escalation of the crisis now nearing the end of its third month.

Sporadic fighting between supporters of the country's rival presidents, Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, continues in the country's commercial capital, Abidjan.

Human Rights Watch says it has documented killings and abductions by President Gbagbo's security forces in the past few days.

An armed group loyal to Mr. Ouattara has claimed responsibility for an attack on government forces in the Abobo neighborhood of Abidjan on Tuesday in which it says 27 people were killed.  The government army denies that claim and says only one soldier was killed.

Hundreds of residents could be seen fleeing the city's Abobo neighborhood Thursday where residents reported more gunfire.

Incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, has refused to step down following a presidential run-off in November, which the United Nations and the country's electoral commission said he lost to rival, Mr. Ouattara.

Mr. Gbagbo's government says a constitutional council investigation concluded that Mr. Gbagbo won the election.

A high-level African Union delegation met with both men in Abidjan this week and is expected to announce its plans for resolving the political stand-off in the next five days.

Human Rights Watch is calling on those African leaders to enter these final days of mediation with "eyes wide open" to what it says is an ongoing "campaign of violence" by President Gbagbo's security forces against Mr. Ouattara's supporters, members of ethnic groups from northern Ivory Coast, Muslims and immigrants from neighboring countries.

HRW researcher, Matt Wells, says attacks on these real and perceived Ouattara supporters continue to escalate.

"In recent days, we have documented that they have continued to commit some really grave abuses against real and perceived supporters [of Ouattara], including firing live rounds and even rocket-propelled grenades into crowds of mostly peaceful demonstrators, as well as abducting people from an Abidjan hospital during the light of the day, their bodies later found by family members in a morgue," said Wells.

Human Rights Watch says African Union mediators should call for end to human rights abuses and the incitement to violence on both sides.

November's presidential election was meant to reunite the country following a 2002-2003 civil war. Instead, it led to a political crisis that has only deepened divisions and looks dangerously close to reigniting the conflict.

Human Rights Watch says it has documented fresh recruitment by both forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara rebel fighters.

"In Abidjan itself, there has been heavy recruitment by those loyal to Gbagbo of new militias as well as mercenaries, particularly from Liberia, but Forces Nouvelles, the long-time rebel army under the control of Guillaume Soro, has likewise recruited," added Wells.  "They have remobilized the vast majority of those that were demobilized after the conflict. There has been a real escalation in recent weeks of preparing on both sides should civil war resume."

The United Nations says post-electoral violence has killed nearly 300 people and prompted at least 35,000 Ivorians to flee to neighboring Liberia.

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