|Ouattara, second from left in a suit, is recognised by the UN as the winner of the November 28 elections [AFP]|
Armed men aided by police have ransacked about a dozen houses in Cote d’Ivoire’s commercial city, Abidjan, carting away property belonging to officials allied with the country’s internationally recognised president, witnesses say.
The looting happened on Sunday as heavy fighting broke out in the country’s west.
Cote d’Ivoire has been in turmoil since the disputed election of November 28, which saw Laurent Gbagbo clinging to power claiming he won the election although Alassane Ouattara, his main rival, is recognised by the United Nations as the winner.
A witness reported seeing a pickup van belonging to the elite paramilitary police force CECOS leaving the house belonging to Ouattara’s finance minister on Saturday.
The CECOS vehicle was loaded down with a refrigerator and it later returned to the house owned by Charles Koffi Diby, leaving a second time with a large safe, said the witness.
Dozens of teenagers smashed the doors and windows of the house and later left wearing suits and robes, carrying dishes and other valuables, said the witness, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.
Ouattara women’s-issues adviser, Ami Toungara, was among those whose houses were looted. She said the police were targeting people they know to be at the Golf Hotel – where Quattara is holed up – and unable to protect their houses.
Toungara said that after the valuables were taken from her house on Friday, the looters made off with tanks of cooking gas and bags of rice.
“They stole a back massager and we later found it in the garden,” she said.
‘Atmosphere of terror’
A senior Ouattara adviser, Amadou Coulibaly, said that police recruited the youth to participate in the lootings, which began on Thursday.
“They’re trying to install an atmosphere of terror, but you can’t do more than what they’ve already done, firing on unarmed women. They’re getting desperate,” he said.
The UN representative to Cote d’Ivoire said on Saturday a surge in violence, which resulted in the fatal shooting of six women protesting against Gbagbo’s refusal to step down, will see deployment of 2,000 troops to beef up the 8000-strong force already in the country.
“What we are seeing is clearly an escalation of violence,” Young-jin Choi told the Liberation newspaper in an interview. “Since Feb 19, incidents have gotten more serious.”
Hundreds of miles away in the region bordering Liberia, heavy fighting broke out on Sunday between pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara forces.
Saah Nyuma, the deputy director of the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission, said he heard the sounds of explosions coming from Ivory Coast, on the Liberian side of the frontier.
At least one mortar shell fell on the Liberian side and a fighter allied with Ouattara said by telephone the fighting was taking place in the border village of Toulepleu. The fighter asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
The international community has urged Gbagbo to step down to end the crisis but has stopped short of using force against him.
A deluge of international reproach followed Thursday’s killings, with governments around the world expressing their disgust at the grisly incident.
Britain’s foreign Office minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, called again on Gbagbo to step down, saying he was “deeply concerned” about the deteriorating security situation and was “appalled” to hear that women were killed during a peaceful demonstration.
“This is a deplorable and cowardly act against unarmed protesters calling for the results of the Presidential elections to be respected,” he said in a statement on Sunday.
“Gbagbo’s continuing refusal to cede power ignores the will of the Ivorian people, challenges African democracy, and risks further violence and instability.”
Ouattara and his government have been confined to the Golf Hotel since early December by elite security forces loyal to Gbagbo.
Analysts fear that Cote d’Ivoire’s crisis will spill over into full-blown civil war, and the UN has warned that the escalating violence could be leading in that direction.