Liberia shuts Ivorian border after attack on U.N.

ABIDJAN Sat Jun 9, 2012 4:13pm EDT

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Liberia closed its border with Ivory Coast on Saturday but did not confirm the claim by Abidjan that gunmen who killed seven United Nations peacekeepers, eight civilians and a soldier had come from its territory.

Ivory Coast Defence Minister Paul Koffi Koffi said the raid on Friday afternoon highlighted the need for Ivorian troops to carry out cross-border operations in Liberia to improve security but Monrovia's government said no such plans were in place.

The United Nations said it was reshuffling some of its several thousand troops deployed in the zone to protect civilians in the border area. The bodies of its slain Nigerien troops reached Abidjan by late afternoon.

The attack highlights simmering tensions and security threats in the west of the world's top cocoa grower despite a year of progress that stabilized much of the rest of the country after months of post-election violence last year.

"These people came from the other side of the border. They are militias and mercenaries," Koffi Koffi said.

"We must go to the other side of the border to establish a security zone. We will clean up and secure the zone. This will be done, of course, with the agreement of the two countries."

Liberia's information minister Lewis Browne told reporters in Monrovia that investigations were still on-going to determine where the attack came from.

"(But) the first measure will be the immediate closure of the Liberian side of the border with (Ivory Coast)," he said.

Liberian Defence Minister Brownie Samukai said there were no immediate plans for Ivorian troops to deploy inside his country.

Ivory Coast and Liberia have generally had good relations and have in the past carried out joint patrols with U.N. peacekeepers along their border.

Koffi Koffi said the Ivorian and U.N. troops were responding to a suspected raid on a village 45 km south of the town of Tai, close to the border, when they were ambushed.

The U.N. humanitarian coordination office, OCHA, said an old woman was among the eight civilians killed. It said hundreds of civilians from the raided village had arrived in Tai after fleeing the violence.

"We're expecting around 4,000 that are reportedly on their way there," said OCHA spokeswoman Anouk Desgroseilliers.

Ivorian leader Alassane Ouattara won a 2010 election but only came to power following months of violence that killed thousands after incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede.

New York-based Human Rights Watch warned earlier this week that Liberian mercenaries and Ivorian fighters who fought for Gbagbo in the brief civil war last year were launching attacks on Ivory Coast from Liberia.

The campaigning group said the militants behind the raids, which have killed 40 people since last July, were receiving funds from supporters of Gbagbo - who is awaiting trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague over his role in the civil war.

Liberia has denied accusations it is not doing enough to prevent the attacks.

After the raid on Friday, the U.N. Security Council "expressed their deep concern at the prevailing insecurity ... and continued cross-border movements of armed elements, including militias and mercenaries".

Sylvie van den Wildenberg, spokeswoman for the U.N. mission known by its acronym UNOCI, said on Saturday it was reinforcing its force in the border area. "We have several thousand troops in the west, and we are reorganizing in light of this incident."

(Additional reporting by Clair MacDougall and Alhponso Toweh in Monrovia; Additional reporting by Luc Gnago; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Pravin Char)