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Geneva - Up to one million Ivorians have now fled fighting in the main city Abidjan alone, with others uprooted across the country, the UN refugee agency said on Friday as violence escalated in a four-month power struggle.
France and Nigeria called on world powers to sanction incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo and his inner circle and ban heavy weapons in Abidjan, days after the United Nations warned that forces loyal to Gbagbo were readying an attack helicopter and powerful rocket launchers.
Gbagbo's camp denies using heavy weapons on civilians.
“The massive displacement in Abidjan and elsewhere is being fuelled by fears of all-out war,” Melissa Fleming, spokesperson of the UN refugee agency UNHCR told a news briefing in Geneva.
“Between 700,000 and one million could now be displaced.”
Ivory Coast has descended to the verge of civil war following a disputed election in November last year which Alassane Ouattara is recognised internationally to have won. Gbagbo has refused to step down, saying the results were rigged.
The violent stand-off has led to 462 confirmed deaths.
In Abidjan, a city of 4 million, areas where fighting has occurred were deserted, shops were boarded up or looted and houses abandoned. In other areas, traffic was slow as few dared to venture out. Many restaurants and shops were shut.
Roadblocks maned by volatile youths loyal to Gbagbo and armed with guns and machetes have strangled parts of the city.
The UN agency said at least a further 70,000 were known to be displaced in western Ivory Coast several weeks ago, but the refugee agency has been unable to monitor that area due to fighting. Another 100,000 Ivorians had fled to Liberia.
“We are very concerned this conflict could spill into Liberia,” said Fleming who just returned from Monrovia with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
The UN human rights office said on Friday it was looking into allegations that 200 nationals of Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea and Togo were killed near Guiglo, in the west.
West African immigrants are increasingly under attack after a long hate campaign on state TV equating them with the rebels.
Separately, the UN Human Rights Council agreed on Friday to send an independent commission of inquiry to investigate killings and other serious crimes in the top cocoa producer.
Prices have risen dramatically and bus terminals are overcrowded with people desperate to leave.
A UN rights officer said on Thursday forces loyal to Gbagbo shelled areas of Abidjan that were seen as pro-Ouattara, and had killed 50 people in the past week.
MEDICAL STAFF FLEE ABIDJAN
Ivory Coast's neighbours called on Thursday for the mandate of the 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission to be strengthened so it can more robustly prevent civilian deaths.
At an EU summit in Brussels, President Nicolas Sarkozy said France had submitted a draft resolution to the UN to ban heavy weapons in Abidjan. Gbagbo's government has repeatedly accused the UN siding with rivals it calls “terrorists”.
“At a minimum there should be no heavy weapons in Abidjan,” Sarkozy said. “It should be declared illegal.”
“It would be shocking to hush up what is happening to the Ivorian population, especially in Abidjan,” he said.
The 15-nation council is expected to discuss the draft in detail next week but it was not clear when they would vote.
The medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it had treated hundreds of people with bullet wounds. Nearly all medical workers in six hospitals have fled, it said.
“Health centres no longer operate - or provide extremely limited services - because medical staff have left, they lack drugs and medical supplies, and because some have been looted,” said Renzo Fricke, MSF emergency coordinator.
A Reuters reporter heard sporadic gunfire throughout Friday.
“Greater measures to protect civilians and meet fundamental humanitarian needs in Ivory Coast are urgently needed,” said a coalition of 32 international charities in a Friday statement.
“Hundreds of thousands of people are in urgent need of food and non-food aid, including medicine,” it added.
It also urged extra peacekeepers to protect civilians. - Reuters