Ivory Coast’s new leader Alassane Ouattara: Hero or Villain?

Last night, the U.N.’s top peacekeeping official, Alain Le Roy, hinted that the United Nations, backed by French forces, may have to resume helicopter gunship strikes against the forces of Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo in order to protect his political rival, Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara defeated Gbagbo in Ivory Coast’s U.N. certified president election in November, ...

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.

Last night, the U.N.'s top peacekeeping official, Alain Le Roy, hinted that the United Nations, backed by French forces, may have to resume helicopter gunship strikes against the forces of Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo in order to protect his political rival, Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara defeated Gbagbo in Ivory Coast's U.N. certified president election in November, and he has gone on to win wide backing from the U.N. and foreign governments in Africa and beyond.

But Ouattara's standing as Ivory Coast's new leader is already being tarnished amid reports that forces loyal to his cause have engaged in gross human rights abuses during an offensive aimed at driving Gbagbo from power. Last night, Human Rights Watch released a damning report that accuses Ouattara's forces of killing hundreds of civilians, raping more than 20, and burning at least 10 villages during a military offensive last month.

Last night, the U.N.’s top peacekeeping official, Alain Le Roy, hinted that the United Nations, backed by French forces, may have to resume helicopter gunship strikes against the forces of Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo in order to protect his political rival, Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara defeated Gbagbo in Ivory Coast’s U.N. certified president election in November, and he has gone on to win wide backing from the U.N. and foreign governments in Africa and beyond.

But Ouattara’s standing as Ivory Coast’s new leader is already being tarnished amid reports that forces loyal to his cause have engaged in gross human rights abuses during an offensive aimed at driving Gbagbo from power. Last night, Human Rights Watch released a damning report that accuses Ouattara’s forces of killing hundreds of civilians, raping more than 20, and burning at least 10 villages during a military offensive last month.

The report also documents post-election atrocities by Gbagbo’s loyalists, who have engaged in a campaign of intimidation and murder against members of ethnic groups believed loyal to Ouattara and against U.N. personnel who are protecting the president elect. For instance, the report uncovered evidence that on March 28 pro-Gbagbo forces massacred more than 100 men, women and children in the northern Ivorian village of Bloléquin. The following day, they killed another ten people in the town of Guiglo.

"To understand the tragic events in Côte d’Ivoire, a line cannot be drawn between north and south, or supporters of Gbagbo and Ouattara," Daniel Bekele, Human Rights Watch‘s Africa director said in a statement. "Unfortunately, there are those on both sides who have shown little regard for the dignity of human life." 

But the reports focus is primarily on violence carried out by Ouattara’s forces against members of the pro-Gbagbo ethnic Guéré as they advanced across the country in a month-long offensive, capturing Gbagbo-controlled towns of Toulepleu, Doké, Bloléquin, Duékoué, and Guiglo in western Ivory Coast.

"People interviewed by Human Rights Watch described how, in village after village, pro-Ouattara forces, now called the Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire (Forces Républicaines de Côte d’Ivoire, FRCI), summarily executed and raped perceived Gbagbo supporters in their homes, as they worked in the fields, as they fled, or as they tried to hide in the bush," according to a report released by Human Rights Watch. "The fighters often targeted people by ethnicity, and the attacks disproportionally affected those too old or feeble to flee."

Outtara’s army is comprised of a lose coalition of former Ivorian rebels from the north  and former Ivorian soldiers and police that defected from Gbagbo’s security forces. The former rebels, known as the Forces Nouvelles, as well as Gbagbo’s forces had committed serious atrocities during the countries previous civil war in 2002. The U.N., human rights groups and foreign governments have urged both sides to prevent such abuses in the current round of fighting. So far, the call hasn’t been heeded.

"The month-long onslaught of abuses against Guéré civilians in the far west, which began in late February, culminated in the massacre of hundreds in the town of Duékoué on March 29," according to the Human Rights Watch report. "After securing the town that morning, fighters from the Republican Forces – accompanied by two pro-Ouattara militia groups – proceeded to the Gbagbo-stronghold neighborhood of Carrefour. Eight women told Human Rights Watch that pro-Ouattara forces dragged men, young and old, out of their homes and executed them with machetes and guns in the street, sometimes with multiple rounds of bullets. While committing the often gruesome killings, some attackers threatened "to kill the Guéré until the last one" because of their support for Gbagbo."

Ouattara’s government has previously denied allegations that its troops have engaged in atrocities, and has offered to cooperate with an independent probe into allegations of atrocities at Duékoué. But Ouattara’s U.N. envoy, Youssoufou Bamba, declined to respond to the specific allegations in the report, telling Turtle Bay he had only received a copy of it this morning and hadn’t had time to form an official response.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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