JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – As forces loyal to Ivory Coast’s rival presidents fought pitched battles in the country’s biggest city, the Red Cross reported an ominous development in the increasingly brutal struggle for control: the massacre of up to 1,000 civilians in a western town.
The killings in Duekoue reportedly came over the course of three days last week after forces loyal to the internationally recognized winner of last fall’s presidential election, Alassane Ouattara, took control of the town.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it remained unclear who was responsible for the killings of an estimated 800 to 1,000 people, but a spokeswoman said the scene in Duekoue was horrific.
“We were shocked by the magnitude of the brutality of the event,” said Dorothea Krimitsas. “Our colleagues found a huge amount of bodies.”
A spokesman for Ouattara said Saturday that his loyalists killed only fighters in the town as they swept down from the north, taking vast swaths of the West African country in their bid to force Laurent Gbagbo to cede power. The capital, Yamoussoukro, fell last week with barely a shot fired.
The Red Cross and the Catholic charity Caritas, which sent teams to the town last week, called for a thorough investigation.
The killings occurred in an area where ethnic and communal tensions over land have been deepened by the recent political crisis, which began when Gbagbo, the incumbent, refused to leave office after the international community declared Ouattara the winner in U.N.-certified elections in November.
African and world leaders have called on Gbagbo to relinquish power to end the bloodshed. But he has dug in as fighting spread across many districts of Abidjan, the commercial capital.