12 January 2011 – ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (By ADAM NOSSITER) The shouts came from the end of the dusty road: “They’re coming, they’re coming!”
Young men broke into a run, waving their arms in warning. Bursts of automatic gunfire crackled in the humid air behind them. In a flash, the wide, pitted road — crowded a moment before with angry residents — emptied. The inhabitants, all too accustomed to raids, had quickly scattered.
For the next 45 minutes, the neighborhood was raked by the pop-popping of gunfire and the sounds of explosions, delivered by the security forces of Laurent Gbagbo, the strongman who refuses to give up power despite losing a presidential election late last year. By the end of the assault, several people had been killed. Spent shells and trails of blood streaked the streets.
All the while, the United Nations, which has nearly ten thousand troops here, was nowhere to be seen. Though top United Nations officials have recently pledged to enforce their mandate in Ivory Coast robustly, promising to run roadblocks or other obstructions to protect civilians here, no peacekeepers arrived, much to the anger of residents.
“We sent a patrol there this morning; they were blocked,” said a United Nation’s military spokesman here, Lt. Col. Rais Shakib. “They blocked us completely,” he repeated, referring to the pro-Gbagbo forces.
So the shooting continued, uninterrupted. These muscled raiding parties — or “death squads,” as opposition officials call them — have been widely condemned by international officials, who warn of prosecutions and other consequences for attacks on civilians. But after a brief lull in recent weeks, the deadly raids appear to be back.
Alassane Ouattara, the man recognized as the winner of the election by the United Nations, the African Union and most governments around the world, calls the tactic a calculated bid to induce terror in the civilian strongholds of his supporters, helping suppress opposition to Mr. Gbagbo’s extended stay in office.
A Gbagbo government spokesman, Alain Toussaint, said the government forces had a legitimate mission. “The security forces received information that there were numerous armed persons in the neighborhood,” he said. “They proceeded there to conduct a security operation.”
Asked if any weapons had been found, he said “certainly,” adding that two of the government’s own police officers had been killed in the operation.
But of the scores of residents who scattered as the security forces swept in, only one appeared to be armed. Residents also spoke of repeatedly calling a United Nations emergency hot line for help, and getting no answer.
Colonel Shakib insisted that “the mission is always the same, to protect civilians.” But he also seemed to deflect some of the responsibility, saying Ivory Coast’s “security forces always have the first line of responsibility against wrongdoers” — a seeming non sequitur considering that the security forces were the ones to open fire on the neighborhood crowd.
Incensed that the United Nations — like other intergovernmental bodies — has called on him to step down, Mr. Gbagbo demanded that its forces leave the country. The United Nations refused, but its ability to operate has been severely hampered at times.
Still, United Nations officials have said they will not be deterred, and late last month the under secretary general for peacekeeping, Alain Le Roy, was quoted as saying, “We will ensure firmly, if someone obstructs us, that we cross through roadblocks because it is inadmissible that anybody prevent us from protecting civilians.”
On Tuesday at the United Nations, the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, asked the Security Council to authorize an additional 2,000 military personnel for the peacekeeping forces, as well as three attack helicopters and a military hospital, because of the deteriorating situation. He cited “direct threats from regular and irregular forces loyal to former President Gbagbo.”
By late Wednesday morning, the raid in the opposition neighborhood here, known as Abobo, was ending. At regular intervals, automatic weapons shattered the stillness. Then there was a pause, and then the firing would start up again as residents hit the ground or pulled curious heads hastily back indoors.
Finally, the word sounded: the security forces appeared to be leaving. It was safe to come out again.
Residents said five people had been killed. The low concrete-block buildings of Abobo were pockmarked with bullet holes. Car windshields were shattered. Tank tracks were visible in the dust. Residents pointed with caution to an unexploded grenade still lying in the dirt street.
Six weeks ago, shortly after Mr. Gbagbo made it clear he did not intend to give up power, there were raids almost nightly in the pro-Ouattara neighborhoods in which the candidate’s supporters were shot, killed or kidnapped, residents say. The United Nations spoke of “massive violations” of human rights, including extrajudicial killings.
In other periods of violence here, earlier in the decade, Mr. Gbagbo’s government was also connected to the use of death squads, notably in a secret United Nations report that was subsequently suppressed by the world body, apparently for the sake of preserving a peace process.
In the last few weeks, as now stalemated diplomatic efforts got under way, there was a lull in the neighborhood attacks. But Wednesday’s operation appeared to signal a reprise.
“We were sleeping soundly, at around 2 a.m.,” said Ambroise Koné, a doctor who treated some of the wounded. Then a guardian, appointed to watch over barricades residents had erected, sounded the alert: The men in uniform had arrived.
“They fired on anything that moved,” Dr. Koné said.
Some of the attackers wore the uniforms of Mr. Gbagbo’s defense and security forces, residents said, while others were hooded and spoke in English, suggesting the possible presence of foreign mercenaries.
An army helicopter circled overhead, he and others said, dropping flares to indicate to the soldiers where young men were gathered. Residents spoke of being helpless in the face of what they described as an unprovoked attack on unarmed civilians by well-armed soldiers.
“Our neighborhood was invaded,” said Abdoulaye Bakayoko. “They attacked us with heavy weapons. They went inside the courtyards, and took people away. We are defenseless,” Mr. Bakayoko said.
Dr. Koné said, “We are appealing for help, to anybody.”
Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting from the United Nations.