YAMOUSSOUKRO, IVORY COAST (BNO NEWS) — An armed group attacked a United Nations (UN) patrol in a remote region of southwestern Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) on late Friday, killing at least seven UN peacekeepers and forcing scores of villagers to flee, officials said.
The attack happened near Para, a village in the west of the country near the border with Liberia, when an armed group ambushed a reconnaissance patrol belonging to the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI). It happened in a region where UNOCI recently strengthened its presence due to threats of attacks against civilians.
“I have just been told that we have lost seven peacekeepers from Niger in an ambush in the southwest of Côte d’Ivoire,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at a press conference in New York. “I am saddened and outraged. These brave soldiers died in the service of peace. I condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms.”
UN Special Representative to Ivory Coast, Bert Koenders, said at least seven UNOCI peacekeepers from Niger were killed but noted the information was preliminary. Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky said Ivorians are also believed to have been killed, but he did not specify whether they are civilians or military service members.
“I understand that their colleagues are still in danger,” Ban said, referring to the UNOCI peacekeepers in the area. “Even tonight, after the attack, more than 40 peacekeepers remain with the villagers in this remote region to protect them from this armed group. We have no more details at this time, but I am being briefed as events unfold.”
Preliminary reports indicate that scores of civilians have fled the region after Friday’s attack, which is the worst against UNOCI peacekeepers since their deployment in April 2004. It was not immediately clear which group was behind the attack, but Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned earlier this week that enemies of the Ivorian government have recruited Liberian children to carry out deadly cross-border raids on Ivorian villages.
“For well over a year, the Liberian government has had its head in the sand in responding to the flood of war criminals who crossed into the country at the end of the Ivorian crisis,” HRW researcher Matt Wells said on Wednesday. “Rather than uphold its responsibility to prosecute or extradite those involved in international crimes, Liberian authorities have stood by as many of these same people recruit child soldiers and carry out deadly cross-border attacks.”
According to the New York-based human rights group, at least 40 Ivorian residents, including women and children, have been killed since July 2011 as a result of four cross-border attacks that targeted civilians from ethnic groups which largely support President Alassane Ouattara. The most recent attack took place on April 25 in the village of Sakré, resulting in the deaths of eight people.
The attackers in the recent attack told HRW they were planning further cross-border raids. The human rights group said most of the fighters are Liberians and Ivorians who fought with the forces of former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to leave office following his election defeat to Ouattara, triggering a months-long civil war.
Gbagbo was captured in April last year and was transferred by Ivorian authorities to the custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands in November. He faces four counts of crimes against humanity, namely murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, persecution and other inhuman acts.
UNOCI, tasked with helping stabilize the West African country and participating in the demobilization of former combatants, has nearly 11,000 uniformed personnel, 400 international civilian personnel, 758 local staff and 290 UN volunteers. A total of 97 UNOCI members have been killed since April 2004, including the seven peacekeepers killed on Friday.