ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivorian security forces shot dead seven women protestors on Thursday and the United Nations said at least 365 people had died in violence since disputed elections that have taken the country to the brink of civil war.
Many others were wounded in the attack on the all-women demonstration against incumbent Laurent Gbagbo in the northern Abidjan suburb of Abobo, two witnesses and a security source said.
The U.N. said some 200,000 people had fled their homes in Abobo, leaving it almost completely deserted after heavy fighting last week.
The power struggle between presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara and Gbagbo, who has rejected widespread calls to stand down after a November 28 election, could push the top cocoa grower back into civil war.
ICE cocoa hit a fresh 32-year peak of $3,726 a tonne in early trading on Thursday as the crisis deepened.
The incident took place as women gathered at the Anador roundabout in Abobo for a planned march to call on Gbagbo to step down, an eye witness said.
“Men in uniform drove up and started shooting randomly. Six women died on the spot. They were all shot and the other women are crying,” said Idrissa Diarrassouba. A seventh woman later died in hospital.
A poll meant to reunify a country divided since its 2002-3 war has instead triggered a crisis that has seen killings and forced people from their homes in Abidjan and the west, where some 70,000 have crossed into Liberia.
Last week Abobo saw heavy clashes between pro-Gbagbo forces and gunmen who are calling themselves the “invisible commandos” and have taken control of parts of the area. Pro-Gbagbo forces remain in the area around Anador.
Another Abobo resident said that 10 women had been killed and dozens others wounded when the security forces opened fire.
“I’m standing next to a body right now, with a bullet hole in her neck,” said Moussa Fofana, a teacher.
There was no official comment on the incident. A military source confirmed the shooting but said it had been an accident.
“It was a blunder that we regret,” the source said, adding the security forces had opened fire due to the tension and the fact they believe rebels sometimes hide amongst civilians to attack them. “It is unfortunate that this happened,” he said.
Gbagbo has retained the loyalty of much of the security forces but has been hit by a raft of sanctions. Ouattara, meanwhile has the support of the international community and is holed up in an Abidjan hotel, protected by U.N. troops.
Both men have set up their own governments but neither are functioning properly and the economy is paralysed.
U.N. mission spokesman Hamadoun Toure said the official confirmed death toll from violence since the election was 365, but diplomats believe the real figure to be far higher because the Ivorian military rarely discloses casualties of its own or civilians killed by its troops.
Toure said at least 26 civilians were killed and more than 200,000 displaced from Abobo since fighting flared up.
The International Crisis Group think tank warned Gbagbo was ready to fight to the end “even if it meant throwing Ivory Coast into anarchy and economic disaster,” and said Ouattara should seek to form a national unity government to heal divisions.
“The most likely scenario in the coming months is armed conflict involving massive violence against civilians, Ivorian and foreign alike, that could provoke unilateral military intervention by neighbours, starting with Burkina Faso,” ICG said in a report “Is War the Only Option?.”
Scores of gunmen and civilians are believed to have been killed in fighting in the past week, residents say.
Toure told journalists negotiations were ongoing with both sides to open up a humanitarian corridor into Abobo in order to bring in food aid and medicine.
He was concerned by reports the “invisible commandos” were preventing some civilians from leaving the areas they control and by attacks against U.N. staff by Gbagbo’s youth supporters, who have set up road blocks all over Abidjan to search vehicles of suspected rebels or U.N. staff Gbagbo accuses of aiding them.
Additional reporting by Tim Cocks; writing by David Lewis and Tim Cocks; editing Elizabeth Fullerton