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African Union urged to press Gbagbo to halt abuses

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Dakar, February 23, 2011 - The African Union delegation tasked with resolving the political crisis in Côte d'Ivoire should work to end gross violations of human rights by forces under the control of Laurent Gbagbo, Human Rights Watch said today. The delegation left the country on February 23, 2011, with plans to issue their recommendations in the coming days.

Gbagbo has refused to cede power to Alassane Ouattara, whom international observers have certified as credibly having won the November 2010 presidential election. Gbagbo's forces have targeted real and perceived supporters of Ouattara, using excessive and often lethal force against largely peaceful demonstrators since early December, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has documented the killing by Gbagbo's security forces of at least 11 people since February 19, including demonstrators and passers-by, as well as the abduction and killing of wounded people taken from an Abidjan hospital, and intimidation, harassment, and abuse by armed militiamen. Killings of Gbabgo's forces in pro-Ouattara neighborhoods also have been reported in recent days. Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern that the conflict could escalate if a quick solution is not found.

"As the African Union panel met in Abidjan, the bloodshed continued," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch." These leaders need to step in to find a just and accountable way out of this stand-off before the violence gets any worse."

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In late January, an in-depth investigation by Human Rights Watch into violations in the commercial capital, Abidjan, revealed an often-organized campaign of violence by Gbagbo's security forces targeting members of Ouattara's political coalition, ethnic groups from northern Côte d'Ivoire, Muslims, and immigrants from neighboring West African countries.

Human Rights Watch research shows new violations in recent weeks, with reports of the security forces firing lethal weapons - including live ammunition, fragmentation grenades, and rocket-propelled grenades - into crowds of people who continue to call on Gbagbo to concede his loss to Ouattara.

(. . . )

Human Rights Watch has called on Gbagbo to make clear immediately that the continued use of violence by his forces against Ouattara supporters and others will not be tolerated. Gbagbo's incumbent government also needs to recognize people's rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, Human Rights Watch said. And both sides should direct their armed forces to exercise maximum restraint. Human Rights Watch reminded armed groups that they could be held responsible for war crimes and any other grave violations of human rights if hostilities resume.

"To prevent a return to a civil war, cooler heads need to prevail on both sides of the divide," Bekele said. "At the very least, the visiting African Union delegation needs to call for an end to the current abuses and the incitement to violence by all sides."

Excessive Use of Force, Illegal Detention

On February 21 in the Koumassi neighborhood, three witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces fired at least two rocket-propelled grenades directly into a crowd of over 100 demonstrators, killing at least four and wounding several others. Several witnesses said that pro-Gbagbo security forces, including the Command Center for Operations and Security (CECOS), an elite gendarme unit, fired live rounds and tossed fragmentation grenades into the crowd.

One demonstrator said, "First they shot at us, and then they fired rockets directly into the crowd. I saw several dead, including one Malian man whose arm was completely severed. His intestines were completely outside his body."

In Treichville, around 9 a.m. the same day, troops from the Republican Guard, an elite unit closely linked to Gbagbo, arrived in a convoy of cargo trucks and opened fire on demonstrators congregated at the intersections of Avenue 16 and Rues 17 and 21. One witness told Human Rights Watch, "They came and opened fire with live ammunition immediately. A youth not far from me took a gunshot straight to his head; it was as if part of his face was blown off. He was one of at least two killed that I saw with my own eyes."

Human Rights Watch has also confirmed previous reports of at least 5 people killed when security forces opened fire in the neighborhood of Abobo on February 19 and 20.

Human Rights Watch called on security forces to comply with the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, which state that, in dispersing assemblies, "law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary."

Firing live ammunition, fragmentation grenades, and rocket-propelled grenades into crowds and fleeing protestors clearly violates these requirements, and security forces that continue to engage in such behavior should be brought to account, Human Rights Watch said.

Commanding officers, including the heads of the Republican Guard and CECOS – elite units that have been continuously implicated in grave human rights abuses during the post-election period – should likewise be put on notice for failing to take all measures in their power to prevent, suppress, or report such abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

More than 20 demonstrators were also arrested and detained on February 21. Human Rights Watch called on the security forces to release them immediately or bring charges against them.

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