Speaking to Aljazeera.net on Tuesday, Abidjan's ambassador to the United States, Daouda Diabate, said both reports, which highlighted Ivory Coast as having poor press freedoms, were unfair as they were based on information from a time when the African republic was in a state of virtual revolution.

"Of course, some bad things were happening back in November 2004.

"But the situation has improved steadily ever since the Pretoria Agreement [a peace plan drawn up on 6 April 2005]. I believe our media are as free today as anywhere else," said Diabate.

The ambassador dismissed the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) allegation that a pro-government youth militia were enemies of press liberties.

But earlier on Tuesday, RSF poured criticism on press freedom in the republic and also extended major criticism to Eritrea, Zimbabwe and Nigeria's State Security Service.

"Censorship and intimidation are still weapons often used by governments. And death threats are common. Hate medias have even reappeared," the media watchdog said.

Report details

But RSF alleges that the Young Patriots (YP) militia group continues to threaten opposition journalists, destroy the offices of independent newspapers and push state media to become "mouthpieces of pure propaganda".

The YP is fiercely loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo and was behind violent anti-French protests in the former colony last November.

"Of course, some bad things were happening back in November 2004. But the situation has improved steadily ever since the Pretoria Agreement"

Daouda Diabate,
Ivory Coast's ambassador to US

"Never sanctioned by law, they see the press as a political target. Their leaders publicly accuse media that do not sing the praises of the president of being 'enemies' that must be silenced," RSF added.

And in a separate report released earlier on Tuesday, US-based Human Rights Watch warned that Ivory Coast would plunge deeper into bloodshed and human rights violations in the absence of greater efforts to enforce security.

Justice and unrest

The HRW also urged regional bodies, concerned governments and the International Criminal Court to hold key players in the Ivorian conflict accountable for human rights abuses and violations.

"The deployment of ill-trained and ill-disciplined militias would greatly increase the likelihood of abuse against the civilian population," the 35-page report entitled Country on a Precipice concluded.

And in a related development, at least 15 people have been killed in ethnic clashes in the cocoa-rich west of Ivory Coast since Friday. Local security officials say they are having trouble keeping a lid on the violence.

The fighting broke out between local residents and farm labourers from outside the region at the end of last week. "We evacuated 15 bodies. The number of people who received help is now about 100," said Kim Gordon-Bates, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The report came in the wake of a weekend flare-up of ethnic tensions, which left 14 people dead in clashes between economic migrants and local farmers near the town of Duekoue.