UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Armed forces in Ivory Coast who back incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo have conducted a campaign of violence that has included execution, kidnapping, torture and rape, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
The New York-based watchdog group said an “in-depth investigation” of allegations of human rights violations in Abidjan, the main city in the world’s top cocoa producer, had revealed an “an often-organized campaign of violence.”
“The security forces and militias supporting Laurent Gbagbo are imposing a reign of terror against his real or perceived opponents in Abidjan,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, which monitors rights violations globally.
“The international community must do all it can to protect civilians and increase pressure on Gbagbo and his allies to end this organized campaign of violence,” he said.
The report was released as cracks emerged in African efforts to end a power struggle in Ivory Coast, with Uganda the latest country to question U.N. recognition of Alassane Ouattara as its president.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said he disagreed with the U.N. line on the crisis, as a delegation of West African states prepared a U.S. trip to lobby President Barack Obama and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to back the possible use of force to oust Gbagbo.
Ouattara’s U.N. Ambassador Youssoufou Bamba, who was unanimously recognized as the Ivory Coast’s legitimate envoy last month by the 192-nation U.N. General Assembly, said he was “shocked” by the Human Rights Watch report.
“I knew there were massive human rights violations ... but I couldn’t imagine it was done in such a magnitude and in such a brutal way,” Bamba said in an email to Reuters.
Human Rights Watch said its researchers spoke with over 100 people who had witnessed or been victims of violence. The attacks included “killings by militiamen with bricks and clubs, and sexual assaults in front of family members,” it said.
“Witnesses described seeing family members or neighbours dragged from their homes, mosques, restaurants or the street into waiting vehicles,” it said. “Many were ‘disappeared,’ including some victims who were later found dead.”
The worst attacks, the group said, occurred in the Abobo, Port-Bouet, Youpougon and Koumassi neighbourhoods -- areas heavily populated by Ouattara supporters and immigrants from other parts of West Africa.
Human Rights Watch said most killings by “pro-Gbagbo militias” took place in broad daylight when the victim was stopped at an illicit checkpoint and ordered to show identification.
“If the militiamen believed ... that he was a Muslim or from an ethnic group that tended to support Ouattara, the militiamen would surround him, accuse him of being a ‘marcher’ or ‘rebel,’ and beat the victim to death with iron bars, pieces of wood and bricks,” the report said.
Police and other security forces either actively sided with the militias or stood by while crimes were committed, “openly praising the killings,” it said.
Human Rights Watch said it had documented gang rapes of five women by Gbagbo forces, noting that the victims included a 16-year-old girl and a woman who was eight months pregnant. In two cases, it said, the victims’ husbands were also murdered.
Ouattara has called for an International Criminal Court investigation of the violence that broke out after a disputed November 28 election that was meant to reunite a nation still divided after a 2002-03 civil war.
“Unfortunately, as things stand, the worst is yet to come,” Bamba said, adding that “all member states of the United Nations collectively, and the regional powers in Africa ... should act immediately to put an end to that shame.”
Editing by Todd Eastham