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Ivorian Rape Victims Suffer Anonymity in Conflict

The division of Ivory Coast since a civil war started in late 2002 has led to the perpetuation of sexual attacks on both sides of the conflict. Human rights groups say the extent of the country's rape problem has been hugely underestimated. For VOA, Kari Barber reports from our West and Central Africa bureau in Dakar.

An untold number of women have been raped and sexually assaulted in lawlessness tied to the nation's struggle between the army and rebel forces.

Some human rights groups are concerned the peace deal earlier this month between President Laurent Gbagbo and rebel-leader Guillaume Soro may include wide-sweeping impunity, which could allow rapists to go unpunished.

Ivorian human rights activist Toure Abdoulaye says he does not support amnesty in this situation.

Abdoulaye says amnesty is a good thing for nations recovering from violent conflict and war, but international laws must also be respected.

Salvatore Sagues, an Ivory Coast researcher for human rights group Amnesty International, says most of the rapes occurred in the west of the country when armed groups abducted women and forced them to become sex slaves for the fighters. Women were often gang raped.

"What appears now is that there are hundreds of survivors of these acts who are having great difficulty just living," Sagues said. "They do not have the means to get HIV tests, or when they have HIV, they can not get treatment because they do not have healthcare."

Sagues says the use of rape as a weapon was commonplace for combatants on both sides of the war, making it more difficult to convince the government to bring perpetrators to trial.

"Given the fact there was such a widespread use of rape and sexual assault with total impunity means both parties used rape as a weapon of war to instill terror and to humiliate the victims, their families and the community to which they belong," he said.

Sagues says that if the Ivory Coast does not deliver justice, the international criminal court should intervene.

"We are asking the judicial system to investigate these cases, to charge and to try the people who are responsible for these crimes," he said. "We remind them, according to the statutes of the international criminal court, these crimes are war crimes and if the Ivorian justice are not able to deal with these crimes, it should be the jurisdiction of the international criminal court."

Amnesty International reports that some of the worst cases of sexual abuse were committed by mercenaries from other African countries who are fighting alongside opposition groups.