Hundreds of civilians have abandoned their villages from fear of new attacks and are headed toward the city of Taï, where some of them are already receiving assistance, according to sources of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the Ivory Coast. The wave of displaced, also in direction of Guiritou, is the direct consequence of the ambush that last Friday left seven peacekeepers of the UN local mission (UNOCI) dead near the village of Para. According to the local media, it was the first such attack against peacekeepers. The UN forces from Niger were conducting regular patrol activities in the area along the border with Liberia, highly insecure especially since the 2011 election crisis.
Various sources attribute the attack to “armed individuals that entered from Liberia”, who also attacked some villages south of Taï, including Sakré and Nigré, killing eight civilians and an Ivorial soldier.
The south west of the Ivory Coast, which is also the main cacao and coffee production region, vital economic resources for the nation, was hit the hardest in the electoral standoff last year between exiting president Laurent Gbagbo and his rival, current Head of State Alassane Dramane Ouattara. Some 3,000 people were killed in the crisis that ended a year ago with the arrest of Gbagbo. In reality the area was already the most volatile of the nation due to rivalries for control over the plantations and proximity to Liberia, theatre to a civil war from 1989 to 1997. The volatility of the borders and battle against numerous armed groups and mercenaries has for years been a main challenge for Abijan and Monrovia. Joint Ivorian and Libewrian patrols were due to begin on June 15 along the common borders with backing by the UN peacekeepers.
On Saturday Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ordered the closing of the border, reinforcing troops in the area, backed by peacekeeprs of the UN mission in Liberia (UNMIL), assuring that “all individuals involved in cross border attacks will be arrested and handed over to Ivorian authorities”. The Liberian government also decided to suspend gold extraction activities and move the refugee camps present in the area. West African nations and the UN Security Council condemned the violence and expressed “deep concern” over the deteriorating situation along the border.
Just last week Human Rights Watch denounced that “armed militants hostile to the new Ivorian government are recruiting Liberian children and organising raids in the western regions, killing at least 40 people” since July 2011. According to HRW, the between 100 and 150 elements, mainly Ivorian militants who took refuge in Liberia and Liberian mercenaries hired in the past by Gbagbo, recruited “minors between the ages of 14 and 17 and trained them in a camp set up in Liberia”. The rights organisation also stressed the “inaction” and “lack of political will” of the government of Monrovia that that turns a blind eye to the war criminals that crossed the border. Testimonies gathered by HRW indicate that “a part of the fighters work in the hand extraction of gold along the common border” and that “different subjects involved in the planning of the attacks received financial support from people residing in Ghana”, where a large part of the pro-Gbagbo political and military elite live in exile.
The escalation of violence in the west coincides with the opening of the trial against Gbagbo before the International Criminal Court in the Hague, set for June 18. The former president also faces charges of crimes against humanity.