May 10, 2011 / 2:27 PM / 8 years ago

As bodies pile up, Ivorians fear reprisals

* U.N. verifies 68 bodies in one mass grave in Yopougon

* War triggered by poll disputed killed thousands

* Fighting dying down, but reconciliation a huge task

By Tim Cocks and Ange Aboa ABIDJAN, May 10 (Reuters) - In a muddy slum at the edge of Ivory Coast’s main city, palm leaves stuck in reddish mounds of earth mark the mass graves of locals killed by rampaging gunmen.

Buried there are 68 bodies of President Alassane Ouattara’s Dioula tribespeople, killed by militiamen loyal to his rival, Laurent Gbagbo, just hours after his overthrow on April 11, residents of the Yopougon district of Abidjan say.

“There are 29 people buried just in that one,” said Ibrahim Bakayoko, 62, a local leader, walking over to a conspicuously large grave — 3-4 metres (yards) square — with a small bunch of flowers at its centre.

“The day after Gbagbo fell, the militiamen came here and went door to door, dragging the Dioula out and executing them.”

Formerly a soccer pitch, the graves, flanked by rows of ramshackle houses peppered with bullet holes in the part of Yopougon known as Doukoure, attest to the recent violence.

Faced with the sheer number of bodies, and unable to venture too far for fear of falling victim themselves, Yopougon locals had no choice but to create impromptu cemeteries.

Once-prosperous Ivory Coast is counting the toll from the power struggle between Gbagbo and Ouattara that lasted nearly five months, killing at least 3,000, uprooting over a million and choking vital cocoa exports.

The mass graves underscore the challenge Ouattara faces in reconciling a country bitterly divided by disputes over land, national identity and blood — divisions the Nov. 28 election was intended to heal once and for all.

Deputy U.N. mission human rights officer Guillaume Ngefa confirmed the body count of 68 to Reuters but did not specify their ethnicity. However he supported the assertion that they were killed by Kalashnikov-wielding gunmen at a time when pro-Gbagbo militia still held the upper hand in the suburb.

“EVERYONE IS AFRAID”

Sprawling around the western tenticle of Abidjan’s filthy lagoon, the poor, densely populated district of Yopougon bore the brunt of the worst urban warfare between Gbagbo’s and Ouattara’s forces. It continued for weeks after Gbagbo fell.

In many parts of the suburb there is barely a building unscathed by bullet holes. Many are completely bombed out.

Fighting has died down since Ivorian troops captured a naval base in Abidjan from remnants of Gbabgo’s militiamen last week.

But while much of the rest of Abidjan sees traffic jams growing, bank queues lengthening and boutique shops re-opening, Yopougon is traumatised. Very few are out on the bomb-cratered streets in this neighbourhood housing two million.

“Everyone is afraid,” said Madou Bakari, a traditional healer. “We are trying to forget, but many have left here and will never come back. Life is hard here because we lost everything.”

The U.N. peacekeeping mission is investigating reports of violations by both sides in Yopougon, and some local charities fear Ouattara’s forces may be carrying out reprisal killings.

“REALLY OVER?”

“Is it really over?” asked the state-owned daily Fraternite Matin on its front page on Monday.

That will depend on whether Ouattara can reconcile enemies, many of whom say are not ready to forgive.

“My big brother lies in that tomb,” said 25-year-old trader Aboubacar Meite. “If I find the killers, I’m going to avenge him, even if President Ouattara tells us to leave it be.”

Limiting such reprisals will be crucial. Ouattara wants to put Gbagbo on trial and promises a truth and reconciliation commission to bury Ivory Coast’s demons once and for all.

If security can be assured again, and if he can restore the economy of West Africa’s former star performer — which still boasts more electricity supply and more modern infrastructure than anywhere else in the region — that would go a long way.

At a petrol station in Yopougon, commander Kony Sakaria readies a patrol of ex-rebel Ivorian troops in ill-matching combat fatigues in machine-gun mounted pick-up trucks. He gestures to a row of cars he says his men seized from looters.

“We’re doing patrols to assure the population we can handle security, because there are still looters out there,” he told Reuters. “But for the moment, things are really calming down.” (Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Giles Elgood)

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