Mass grave found in Ivory Coast town: U.N. official

By Patrick Worsnip

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.N. investigators probing allegations that hundreds of people were massacred in an Ivory Coast town have found a mass grave with nearly 200 bodies, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said Monday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Saturday at least 800 people were killed in intercommunal violence in Duekoue last week. The country has been plunged into violence as forces of presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara have sought to topple incumbent Laurent Gbagbo.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast said the same day that pro-Ouattara forces had killed 220 people and pro-Gbagbo militia fighters killed over 110 people in Duekoue. Ouattara said his forces were not involved in the massacre.

Amos, who is visiting Duekoue as part of a trip to establish humanitarian needs in Ivory Coast, said in a telephone interview with Reuters she could not confirm that as many as 800 people had been killed.

“What we do have from the investigations that are being conducted by our colleagues on the human rights side of the United Nations is that they found a mass grave,” said Amos, who heads the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“They already found nearly 200 bodies in that grave, and they have found bodies in other parts of the town as well.”

Duekoue, which lies in the cocoa-growing belt of western Ivory Coast, was captured by Ouattara’s forces on March 29. The West African country is the world’s leading cocoa producer.

Amos said she could not say who was responsible for the killings. People she had spoken to had variously blamed them on Ouattara’s forces, fleeing pro-Gbagbo forces and local militia, as well as conflict between natives and non-natives.

A Ouattara representative who met with her said the presidential claimant was keen that there should be an independent investigation, she said.

The United Nations says Ouattara bested Gbagbo in a presidential election last November, but Gbagbo insists he won the election and has refused to cede power. Ouattara’s forces were fighting Monday to take Gbagbo’s last stronghold in the country’s main city, Abidjan.

Amos described a humanitarian crisis in Duekoue, with over 40,000 people who had fled from neighboring villages taking shelter at a Roman Catholic mission, and a Protestant church accommodating over 1,000 more.

“You can imagine the conditions are terrible,” she said. “But people are feeling a degree of security because they have managed to get away from the violence.”

“I could see for myself today the fear, the horror,” she said, adding that food and water were in short supply.

Amos said there had been a lot of looting in Duekoue and some buildings had been torched, but the town, which in normal times has a population of 120,000, had not been flattened. There appeared to be no fighting there at present, she added.

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

Mass grave found in Ivory Coast town: U.N. official