Stop militia activities, says Human Rights Watch

Pro-government militias in Cote d'Ivoire were continuing to kill, torture and harass civilians with impunity, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.

The New York-based human rights organisation said most of the militias were drawn from President Laurent Gbagbo's Bete tribe of south central Cote d'Ivoire. Their victims were mainly immigrants from other West African countries and members of Cote d'Ivoire's other ethnic groups, it added.

"The proliferation of militia groups is a very dangerous consequence of the conflict in Cote d'Ivoire, particularly in the currently volatile situation," said Peter Takirambudde, the director Human Rights Watch's Africa division.

"Unfortunately the government has not acted to stem this trend. Instead, these groups continue to get away with murder." he added.

The report entitled “Cote d’Ivoire: Militias commit abuses with impunity” also noted increasing lawlessness by fighters in the rebel-held north of Cote d'Ivoire, many of whom have not been paid for several months. "There has been an upsurge in reported incidencts of assault, rape and looting. allegedly carried out by undisciplined armed elements linked to the rebels," it said.

Human Rights Watch said there were several thousand active members of the pro-government militia groups in the south of Cote d'Ivoire, known generically as "Young Patriots." Most appeared to have been recruited from student organisations and the youth wing of Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party as well as the youth wings of allied political parties.

The human rights watchdog accused the militias of hounding thousands of immigrant farmers from their land over the past 10 months in the area around the western town Toulepleu on the troubled Liberian border. It also cited reports that they had forcibly evicted hundreds of peasant farmers from their land in the cocoa-growing district around the central-western town of Gagnoa last month.

Gagnoa is the heartland of Gbagbo's Bete tribe.

Human Rights Watch noted that the Young Patriot militias were also active in Abidjan, where they had attacked the offices of French-owned water and electricity companies and had newspaper distributors and kiosks selling newspapers linked to opposition parties.

The rights group said some militia units, with names such as the “Bees”, “Gazelles” and “Ninjas”, had received military-style training from members of the army. It also noted “credible allegations that some of their members had been armed by government forces.”

Human Rights Watch said the militias had assaulted, harassed, tortured and at times killed foreigners with the security forces either supporting them or failing to intervene.

West African migrant workers, notably from Burkina Faso, have born the brunt of such clashes. According to the United Nations, nearly 350,000 Burkinabe nationals have fled Cote d’Ivoire since the country plunged into civil war in September last year.

Gbagbo's government has accused Burkina Faso of supporting the rebels in the north who have signed a peace agreement in January that is now in danger of breaking down.

On Wednesday, Gbagbo travelled to Burkina Faso for talks with President Blaise Compaore in an attempt to solve the Ivorian crisis and improve strained diplomatic relations between the two countries.

A senior commander of the Young Patriots movement rejected the allegations made in the Human Rights Watch report as "absolutely false."

“We Patriots, we have gone beyond tribalism. Let Human Rights Watch say what it wants, we are working towards reconciliation”, Tierre Legre, a close aide of Young Patriots leader Charles Ble Goude told IRIN.

Legre accused the report of being one-sided, saying it failed to address human rights abuses in rebel-held areas of the country.

Gbagbo's spokesman Alain Toussaint, told IRIN he had not yet read the report.

Human Rights Watch urged the Ivorian government to disband the militias and launch an inquiry into their mistreatment of civilians and the security forces role in supporting or failing to halt their activities. It called on the government to "bring to justice individuals suspected of involvement in these abuses."

The organiasation also urged the United Nations to deploy human rights officers throughout the country to monitor abuses and conduct their own investigations. French and West African peacekeeping forces in the country should be deployed to areas of concern, it added.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Seydou Diarra met with Robert Menard, the secretary-general of press freedom watchdog Reporters sans Frontieres.

Menard's visit to Abidjan came a month after a uniformed policeman shot dead Radio France Internationale journalist Jean Helene at point blank range outside the police headquarters in Abidjan. The incident occurred as Helene was waiting to interview a group of political detainees who were about to be released.