DUEKOUE, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - Victims of an attack on a camp for displaced civilians in Ivory Coast have accused armed U.N. peacekeepers of failing to protect them during a raid that killed seven and wounded more than 50.
The United Nations and the government, which also had security forces at the camp during last week’s attack, have traded blame over the incident, which highlighted simmering tensions in the west of the world’s top cocoa grower.
The U.N. mission said it could not comment on specific allegations until investigators had completed a probe.
A crowd of about 300 people, many of them young men armed with clubs and machetes, stormed the Nahibly camp early on Friday, according to the United Nations, in an apparent revenge attack for an overnight robbery in the nearby town of Duekoue.
“They broke down the gate to get in ... they started to tear down the tents, then they said ‘Send for gasoline. We’re going to burn the tents’,” Sidiki Kehi Dambele told Reuters at Duekoue’s city hall, where hundreds of former camp residents have now taken refuge.
“I ran to (the U.N. police) and climbed aboard their truck, but they pushed me away. I fell out. That’s when (the mob) caught me. They wanted to kill me. They beat me with clubs,” said Dambele, whose left arm and right elbow were wrapped in bandages.
Ivory Coast is recovering from a civil war which erupted last year when then President Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept his defeat in elections in late 2010. The conflict killed about 3,000 people and forced 1 million to flee their homes.
Nahibly, which was largely destroyed in Friday’s raid, was home to about 5,000 Ivorians who had yet to return home, mainly due to lingering insecurity in the west.
About 10 soldiers and 10 police officers from Ivory Coast’s U.N. peacekeeping mission, UNOCI, were stationed at the camp. Reinforcements arrived soon after the violence broke out, the mission said.
Camp resident Jean Matthieu Taha said he was beaten by young men with sticks in front of the peacekeepers.
“At that moment the white people just stopped. You’d try to go to the whites, to UNOCI, and they chased you away themselves. I don’t know why,” he said, the left side of his head covered in an adhesive bandage.
“UNOCI has set up a team to do a thorough investigation into what actually happened in Duekoue. As we speak, that investigation team is at work on the ground,” UNOCI spokesman Kenneth Blackman told Reuters.
“Once it has conducted its investigation, we should have much more information with regard to the details of what happened.”
Ivorian soldiers and police were also deployed to the camp during the violence, and UNOCI and Ivory Coast’s government have since traded blame over who was responsible for security.
A defense ministry spokesman said in a statement broadcast on state television over the weekend that the camp had been “guarded since its creation by the blue helmets of UNOCI”.
UNOCI, tasked by the U.N. Security Council to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, said its detachment in the camp was intended to provide security for aid workers and their equipment and that its staff had been “surrounded and blocked by the crowd”.
“Ivorian authorities were in charge of the general security of the camp ... I would like to reiterate that at no time was the security of the camp under UNOCI’s responsibility,” Arnauld Akodjenou, the deputy head of the mission, said on Saturday.
Ivorian authorities have also promised to investigate.
Duekoue has long been a flashpoint for ethnic violence aggravated by disputes over land ownership. Human rights investigators say about 800 people were massacred there during last year’s conflict. Friday’s attack was also ethnically motivated.
“The failure of the Ivorian security forces and U.N. peacekeepers to protect those in the camp raises serious concerns,” said Matt Wells, West Africa researcher with Human Rights Watch.
“UNOCI has often played an important role in civilian protection, but the inability to stop the attackers in this instance should spur an immediate investigation into what went wrong, with a commitment to make public the findings.”
The United Nations estimates there are about 86,000 people still displaced in Ivory Coast, most living with host families.
Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Pravin Char