COTE D'IVOIRE: Five killed, peacekeepers beat retreat on third day of anti-UN protests
Charles Ble Goude leader of the Young Patriots
Abidjan, 18 January 2006 (IRIN) - Five people were killed and hundreds of UN peacekeepers forced to abandon base on Wednesday as anti-UN protests swept government-held southern Cote d’Ivoire for a third straight day.
After repeated attacks on UN compounds, vehicles and offices, a UN official said civilian personnel were being concentrated in central locations. “The security of staff remains our primary concern,” he said.
As angry protesters loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo took over state television and broadcast calls for mass anti-UN demonstrations in the street, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who also heads the African Union, flew in to help defuse the sudden crisis shortly before nightfall.
The main city Abidjan was paralysed for the third straight day by road blocks thrown up by angry youths loyal to Gbagbo.
Cote d’Ivoire split into two more than three years ago and some 10,000 UN and French troops monitor the buffer zone between the government south and the north, which is under rebel control.
In the volatile western region near the Liberian border, hundreds of blue-helmets based in Guiglo and Duekoue were forced to retreat after young protesters invaded compounds and torched UN buildings bearing the distinctive blue flag.
In Guiglo, some 350 km from the main city Abidjan, Bangladeshi soldiers opened fire to repel youths who besieged their barracks overnight. Hours later, the 200-300 men redeployed taking UN civilian personnel with them.
At the local hospital, a doctor who declined to be named told IRIN by telephone that five people were killed and 10 injured from gunshot wounds.
UN officials in Abidjan said four attackers were killed.
“There was an exchange of gunfire,” said UN military spokesman Gilles Combarieu, who confirmed that UN troops had decamped to the nearby buffer zone.
UN peacekeepers operate under the so-called Chapter VII of the UN Charter enabling soldiers to defend themselves and the local population if they come under direct attack.
“Under ONUCI’s Chapter VII mandate, UN forces can and will use all means at their disposal to repel direct attacks against UN personnel and property,” a UN official told IRIN.
Youths loyal to President Gbagbo who belong to a movement known as the Young Patriots have been targeting UN facilities since international mediators overseeing a UN peace blueprint backed measures effectively reducing Gbagbo’s powers.
On Sunday, mediators in the ministerial-level International Working Group (IWG) said that parliament, which is packed with Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party members, does not have a mandate.
Parliament’s mandate expired on 16 December and the IWG recommended the mandate not be renewed, effectively disbanding the assembly.
Gbagbo’s ruling FPI on Tuesday announced in protest that it was quitting the peace process and pulling out its seven members in a transitional government headed by Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny.
A spokesman for the New Forces rebel movement, Sidiki Konate, meanwhile warned that the country was on the edge of war and said the UN withdrawal from Guiglo and Duekoue meant local populations had been left with no protection.
“If the UN leave Duekoue, if they leave Guiglo, then what about the population that are left behind? We are left on the brink of civil war!” he told IRIN. “This is not just about UN soldiers. This is about the lives of millions of Ivorians that the UN are supposed to be protecting.”
At the UN base in Guiglo, as well as at the offices of the aid group Save The Children, looters made away with everything they could salvage.
Western Cote d’Ivoire saw some of the fiercest fighting in the early days of the September 2002 rebellion that split the world’s largest cocoa producing nation in two and brought into being the UN peacekeeping mission in April 2004. The volatile west has also often been the scene of ethnic strife.
Residents told IRIN that at the local radio station in the western town of Daloa, Young Patriots had demanded the station transmit pro-government propaganda. But when workers refused, the station was ransacked and looted.
Some 250 km away in Abidjan, makeshift barricades manned by young men brought activity to a standstill. While the number of Young Patriots roaming the streets was lower than during widely supported 2004 anti-French riots, all businesses were closed and most residents stayed at home.
At a hillside hotel transformed into UN headquarters, UN troops fired tear gas grenades and live bullets to warn off a crowd of protestors that has swollen from several hundred in the morning by over a 1,000 by the afternoon.
Nearly 500 youths meanwhile gathered outside the French military base, according to spokesman Jean-Luc Cotard. “So far they are not violent, they are chanting and dancing,” he told IRIN.
But Young Patriots also massed outside the French Embassy in the lagoon-side business district of Plateau, Abidjan, blocking exits.
“We and our friends… have been in front of the French Embassy for the past three days… because France has been hiding behind the UN Operation in Cote d’Ivoire,” said Young Patriots leader Charles Ble Goude in a statement read out on Ivorian radio.
“France provided arms and organised this internal war which is bereaving our country,” Goude said.
The group was especially vocal against France in violence in November 2004 when thousands of French nationals had to be evacuated from the country.
In Paris, French army chief of staff, General Henri Bentegeat told French Europe 1 radio that the time had come for the AU to agree to long-threatened UN sanctions on Cote d’Ivoire.
“The UN Security Council has for a long time warned that it would impose sanctions on Cote d’Ivoire. The African Union still needs to be ready to accept the sanctions because the UN will not make any decision without the Africans and I think the time has now come,” said Bentegeat.