ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Seven people were killed in western Ivory Coast during clashes between the army and fighters believed to belong to a militia once allied with the president, an army report said on Thursday.
The world’s top cocoa-growing country is emerging from a decade of political crisis that ended with a brief civil war in 2011. Sporadic armed violence has continued, blamed generally on President Alassane Ouattara’s exiled foes.
In Wednesday’s pre-dawn hours, however, gunmen dressed as dozos, a group of mystical hunters who fought on Ouattara’s behalf during the 2011 conflict, attacked an army post in the village of Zilebly along the volatile, porous western border with Liberia, according to the army report.
“The first reinforcements ... fell into an ambush. Two more groups of reinforcements with the participation of gendarmes took back Zilebly at around 5 p.m. (11.00 a.m. EDT),” said the report, which was made available to Reuters.
Four civilians, two soldiers and one of the attackers were killed in the fighting. Another government soldier was wounded.
The clashes prompted nearby village inhabitants to flee, a spokeswoman for the U.N. humanitarian coordination office, OCHA, said.
“The populations of these villages have fled in order to seek refuge in host families,” said Anouk Desgroseilliers. “At this point population movements are ongoing and it’s difficult to have an exact figure of how many people have been displaced.”
Around 3,000 people died during the 2011 conflict, which erupted after then-President Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept Ouattara’s victory in a late 2010 election.
The western cocoa heartland, rife with ethnic tensions and long-standing grievances over land ownership, saw some of the worst bloodshed - with mass killings carried out by both sides.
Pro-Gbagbo militias and their Liberian mercenary allies fled into Liberia as the fighting drew to a close. They have been accused by Ouattara’s government of involvement in regular raids on Ivorian villages along the border.
Meanwhile, armed dozo groups continue to patrol the streets of many Ivorian towns in spite of recent government calls for them to cede security responsibilities to the army and police.
Human rights groups accuse dozo fighters of murder, illegal detention, extortion and other serious abuses targeting suspected Gbagbo supporters.
Amnesty International last month said dozos orchestrated an attack last July on a camp in western Ivory Coast housing 5,000 displaced civilians - most from the Guere ethnic group seen to be among Gbagbo’s staunchest supporters. At least 14 people were killed in the attack, Amnesty’s report said.
Gbagbo is now on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity over mass killings and rape during the 2011 upheaval.
Reporting by Joe Bavier; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Mark Heinrich