Fighting traps Ivorians at church

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The BBC’s Mark Doyle: ‘There could be a major humanitarian crisis’

Some 30,000 people are trapped in a church compound in Ivory Coast as fighting worsens in the west of the country, a missionary has told the BBC.

The priest at a Roman Catholic mission in Duekoue said people had been arriving there with gunshot wounds.

Forces loyal to UN-backed President-elect Alassane Ouattara are on the offensive on several fronts against the army loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo.

Mr Gbagbo refuses to stand down despite the UN saying he lost November’s poll.

The UN has accused pro-Gbagbo forces of shooting at civilians in the country’s largest city, Abidjan, on Monday, killing at least 10 people.

It said a group of Gbagbo supporters had burnt another man alive in the city.

Some one million people have fled the violence – mostly in Abidjan – the UN says.

UN spokesman Hamadoun Toure also accused pro-Ouattara forces of shooting at a UN helicopter near Duekoue.

The fighters have been gaining ground in two offensives from their northern bases.

In the west, the pro-Ouattara forces have attacked Duekoue and the major town of Daloa, while in the east, they say they have taken the town of Bondoukou.

If it fell, Daloa would open the way to Ivory Coast’s cocoa region, the capital, Yamoussoukro, and the cocoa-exporting port of San Pedro.

Ivory Coast is the world’s largest producer.

‘Hiding under table’

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The priest in Duekoue, who did not want to be named, said many of those who had sought refuge at the mission were migrants from other West African countries who have been working in the surrounding cocoa plantations.

When he spoke to the BBC on Tuesday morning, the priest said he was hiding under a table as shooting could still be heard in the town, some of it near the church.

“We’re hearing the fighting… in front of the church, and people are inside the church and they are running around inside,” he said.

He appealed for his mission to be treated as a safe haven by all the fighting forces and says there is not enough food or sanitation for those inside.

Continue reading the main story

Ivory Coast: Battle for power

  • 462 killed, one million fled since disputed election
  • 9,000 UN peacekeepers monitor 2003 ceasefire
  • World’s largest cocoa producer
  • Once was haven of peace and prosperity in West Africa
  • Alassane Ouattara recognised as president-elect
  • International sanctions imposed to force Laurent Gbagbo to go

The UN spokesman told the BBC that “robust patrols” had been deployed to protect the church and those inside.

Daloa is the capital of Ivory Coast’s Centre-West region and is the biggest town to be attacked so far.

The BBC’s John James in the central town of Bouake says the pro-Ouattara forces have now sealed the border with Liberia to stop pro-Gbagbo forces recruiting Liberian mercenaries.

The pro-Ouattara forces have controlled the north of the country since a 2002 civil war. Pro-Gbagbo troops have lost every battle against them since last November’s election, our reporter says.

He says the pro-Gbagbo troops are also now struggling to contain a guerrilla force, known as the Invisible Commandos, who have taken control of the northern part of the country’s biggest city, Abidjan.

At least 462 people have been killed since December, according to the UN, which has a 9,000-strong peacekeeping force in the country.

The UN has accused pro-Gbagbo forces of firing shells at pro-Ouattara areas of Abidjan, causing widespread civilian casualties.

Pro-Ouattara forces in Abidjan have also been accused of killing supporters of Mr Gbagbo.

France last week circulated a draft resolution at the UN calling for sanctions against Mr Gbagbo and his allies.

The European Union has already taken similar measures, leading banks to shut down and badly hitting the cocoa trade, which is one of Mr Gbagbo’s main sources of revenue.

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