Friday, March 04, 2011

Ivory Coast on the edge of civil war

A military blunder in the Ivory Coast may push the country into civil war. During a peaceful protest, seven women were massacred when security forces randomly fired into the crowd.

From the Guardian, writers Pauline Bax and David Smith give us the latest details.

The women's demonstration became a scene of terror when security forces opened fire with machine guns in Abobo, a sprawling, impoverished suburb of the commercial capital, Abidjan, where some of the deadliest clashes have taken place during three months of crisis.

They were about to set off from a roundabout on a march to call on Laurent Gbagbo to step down as president. "Men in uniform drove up and started shooting randomly. Six women died on the spot," Idrissa Diarrassouba told Reuters. A seventh died in hospital. Many others were wounded.

There was no official comment but a military source confirmed the shooting. "It was a blunder that we regret," the source said, adding that security forces believe rebels sometimes hide among civilians. "It is unfortunate."

The UN says at least 365 people have died since November's election, nearly all supporters of Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised winner. The UN said, just after the shooting, that more than 26 people were killed in the past 24 hours in Abobo, where most people come from the country's north.

Multiple delegations of African leaders have come through Abidjan, but Gbagbo has rejected offers of amnesty and comfortable exile abroad if he leaves office.

The UN, other organisations and analysts warn that the country could return to civil war, as in 2002-3, which divided north and south. The International Crisis Group says war is imminent, with skirmishes in Abidjan and the west of the country between militias and army loyal to Gbagbo and the former insurgent New Forces, backing Outtara.

"You cannot predict what the outcome will be," said Issaka Souare, a senior researcher for the Africa conflict prevention programme at South Africa's Institute of Security Studies. "Civil war is not inevitable but it's very likely, depending on how the mediation process will go."

Outside military intervention may now be required, he added. That was first threatened in December by Ecowas, the west African regional bloc of 16 nations.

However, Adekeye Adebajo, the executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at Cape Town University, warned: "You have a situation that could erupt into civil war. But it could also be a stalemate that continues, which makes Ouattara the big loser. The advantage Ivory Coast has over many other countries in this situation is the presence of 9,000 UN peacekeepers who could maintain the partition."

He added: "There will be more clashes but the soldiers from both sides have not shown much stomach for war since 2002. It would take something dramatic for that to change. They each have half now, so why risk losing it all? And would the UN and French peacekeepers step aside? They have an obligation to maintain order."

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