The UN mission in Cote d'Ivoire (ONUCI) on Wednesday called for an inquiry into the death of 13 villagers who were allegedly tortured by forestry agents after being arrested for trespassing in a national park in the government-controlled south.
Twelve people died in prison in the town of Bouafle, about 300 km northwest of the de facto capital Abidjan, on 22 February, and another person died in hospital five days later, ONUCI said in a statement. It said the 13 had sustained injuries from "ill treatment and torture."
The nearby Marahoue National Park, made up of nearly a thousand square kilometres of thick forest and savannah, is home to an estimated 5,000 to 14,000 inhabitants.
But the Ivorian government announced late last year that all families illegally occupying the park had to leave by mid-January and forestry agents have been moving in to evict people.
Although most of the park dwellers come from the Baoule ethnic group of former president Felix Houphouet Boigny, a UN human rights official told IRIN that 11 out of the 13 torture victims had been Burkinabe.
Hundreds of thousands of Burkinabe have flocked to Cote d'Ivoire to work on its cocoa and coffee fields. But since a failed insurgency in September 2002, which left the country split in two, the Burkinabe have been accused of siding with rebels who control the northern half of Cote d'Ivoire, and have come under increasing harassment.
"We have several witnesses saying they have been beaten with wood, fresh pepper was put in their eyes and they had to walk over hot coals," the UN human rights official in Abidjan said on condition of anonymity. "They were tortured by forestry agents before they were brought to the prison."
The official added that dozens of people had been tortured since the eviction deadline expired on 15 January and that forestry agents had also been demanding money from villagers of up to 100,000 CFA (US$ 205) and arresting those who didn't pay.
A local journalist who visited the area last month told IRIN that forestry agents had torched several plantations when the villagers resisted their eviction. "They don't want to leave because the government won't compensate them and they don't know where they should go," he said.
Meanwhile the UN mission urged Ivorian authorities to investigate the deaths.
"ONUCI deplores the events that took place at Bouafle prison and demands an inquiry to establish the circumstances that led to the deaths and the identification of those responsible for these serious acts," the UN mission said its statement.
The Cote d'Ivoire government could not be immediately reached for comment.