Dozens of people have been killed in what are believed to be ethnic clashes in Ivory Coast's western cocoa-growing region. The attacks are the latest incidents of violence in the area, which is in the government-controlled south, near a so-called zone of confidence patrolled by United Nations and French peacekeepers.
Ivorian army spokesman Jules Yao Yao said more than 40 people were killed and about 60 injured in overnight clashes outside the town of Duekoue, around 400 kilometers northwest of the commercial capital Abidjan.
The victims, he said, were shot, stabbed or burned to death. Witnesses say the attackers also doused houses with gasoline before setting them on fire. Some witnesses accused armed northerners of being behind the rampage, while others say they were not sure who the attackers were.
Duekoue's traditional chief, Laurent Batehi, says armed men surrounded several small villages in the middle of the night, before entering and attacking the sleeping residents. He said the assailants threatened to return.
The United Nations says the violence took place between the village of Guitrozon and the city of Duekoue just south of the U.N. patrolled buffer zone that separates Ivory Coast's rebel controlled north and government-run south.
U.N. peacekeepers were dispatched to the area early Wednesday and evacuated 45 wounded villagers to a nearby hospital. The victims of the overnight attacks were identified as ethnic Guere.
The region is known for having a cycle of ethnically-motivated attacks followed by revenge violence. Last month, about 30 people were killed in clashes between Duekoue's local Guere ethnic group and northerners, many of whom operate cocoa plantations.
Duekoue resident Michel Yeoun says violence had been intensifying in recent days.
"There have been many troubles in Duekoue for more than, lets say, a week ago," he said. "Everyday we saw killing, every morning five, two, three killed, every morning. And this morning they're coming to tell me there have been so many problems. So many troubles."
Ivory Coast's west was the scene of some of the worst fighting between rebels, government troops and militias during the civil war that began in late 2002. Around 6,000 U.N. peacekeepers are in the country to monitor a fragile ceasefire, with many patrolling the buffer zone.
Mr. Yeoun says the peacekeepers should be doing more to ensure security.
"They have to do more, because they are present in Duekoue and the place where these killings happened, they are less than one kilometer away from this place," said Mr. Yeoun. "And they are still present in Duekoue. So how can you explain that?"
A U.N. spokesman said the violence was not in the special buffer zone.
The violence comes as a South African-mediated peace process has failed to get a new disarmament plan in divided Ivory Coast started. Pro-government militias last week promised to lay down their weapons and handed in one AK-47 as a symbolic gesture. But armed groups remain at large in the west.
The Ivorian army and the United Nations mission have both sent additional forces to Duekoue to help reestablish security.