Youth supporters of Ivory Coast’s incumbent Laurent Gbagbo rampaged through the business district of Abidjan on Tuesday, pillaging shops owned by foreigners.
The violence followed a call on Friday by Ble Goude, the head of Gbagbo’s youth wing, to resist an insurgency seeking to depose Gbabgo and install rival Alassane Ouattara, winner of a November 28 poll according to U.N.-certified results.
Security in the world’s top cocoa grower is deteriorating, with gunbattles erupting for most of last week and hostilities resuming across a north-south ceasefire line that had been largely quiet since a 2002-3 war ended in stalemate.
Gbagbo’s Young Patriots have long been notorious for xenophobic violence, including attacks against the country’s French community in 2004, on its large Burkinabe and Malian communities and on northern Ivorians with cultural ties to them.
United Nations staff have also been attacked and robbed by pro-Gbagbo gangs this week after repeated broadcasts on state television accusing them of backing pro-Ouattara rebels. Gbagbo is furious with the mission for recognising Ouattara’s win.
U.N. investigators are trying to confirm whether Gbagbo breached an arms embargo by importing helicopters from Belarus. They had to abandon their search in the capital Yamoussoukro after his forces fired at them on the weekend.
A source at U.N. headquarters said information on the helicopter deal came from the intelligence services of one of the five permanent Security Council member states.
He said two helicopter gunships the U.N. mission urgently needed had arrived, which he called a “game changer” that would make it harder for Gbagbo’s forces to attack U.N. patrols.
November’s election was meant to heal divisions sown by a 2002-3 civil war that left the country divided into a rebel-run north and government-run south, but the dispute has worsened divisions and killed well over 300 people since November.
The U.N. says the number of Ivorian refugees in Liberia had reached 68,000, with another 40,000 internally displaced.
Anti-foreigner sentiment is at the core of the troubles that have dogged Ivory Coast for years and has worsened as most nations recognise Ouattara’s win. Ouattara was twice barred from running in past polls because his father is from Burkina Faso.
“I don’t understand what happened. The youths arrived … and starting destroying the things in my shop. They looted everything and now I have nothing left,” Senegalese shopkeeper Ismael Bah told a Reuters reporter.
“What did I do? I’m not involved in politics,” he added.
Mobile phone retailer Mamadou Barro, also from Senegal, fell victim to a similar attack. “Everything I owned was invested in this business. Now it’s gone,” he said.
Insurgents believed to back Ouattara now control most of the northern Abidjan suburb of Abobo after the clashes, and a huge number of refugees have streamed out of it.
“The situation is now calm, with everything under control of the invisible commandos,” said Abobo resident Vasseriki Sumaro, a teacher. “All the security forces have left.”
Elsewhere in Abidjan, Young Patriots armed with guns, clubs and machetes have set up roadblocks and in some cases killed suspected rebels, local press and residents say.
In the rebel-held northern half of the country, residents complained that Gbagbo’s forces, which seized the electricity and water distribution company last month, had cut both off since Monday morning.
“We consider this a grave violation of human rights.” said the rebels’ civilian spokesman Felicien Sekongo.
There was no immediate comment from Gbagbo’s camp.
Separately, thousands of civil servants were anxiously waiting on Tuesday to see if they will be paid for the month of February, after an exodus of international banks.
“They promised us Friday, but I’m really afraid the money is going to run out,” health ministry official Mathias Gosse said.
Gbagbo’s government nationalised two French banks, saying they would reopen them soon, but analysts doubt it will work, as West Africa’s central bank has cut ties with him.
Nine newspapers that either support Ouattara or are independent shut this week in protest at threats and harassment by Gbagbo’s camp, press freedom watchdogs said.