UN helps in evacuation of foreign nationals from violencewracked Côte dIvoire

Inter-ethnic violence flared in President Laurent Gbagbo’s hometown of Gagnoa in the Government-held south, while the situation in Bouaké in the rebel-held north is getting serious due to the lack of water and electricity, the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) reported.Hate and anti-French messages continued unabated on radio and television despite a call yesterday from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that such incitement cease and that all parties maintain the ceasefire that ended direct fighting early last year and resume the peace process.The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Ruud Lubbers, warned that an escalation of violence in Côte d’Ivoire could destabilize neighbouring countries, particularly fragile Liberia, itself emerging from 14 years of civil war.The latest unrest flared last Thursday when the Government violated the ceasefire by launching an attack in the Zone of Confidence (ZOC) separating the combatants. On Saturday Government aircraft bombed French peacekeepers in the area, killing nine people and leading to French reprisals which destroyed the tiny Ivorian air force. This in turn led to anti-foreigner rioting in Abidjan, the country’s largest city.UN peacekeepers have so far escorted up to 400 non-UN persons from the three sites protected by UN blue helmets for processing prior to evacuation out of the country. They also escorted some 150 Canadians, 40 Spaniards and a number of Moroccans to the airport. These groups are being flown out by the respective countries.UNOCI continues to take in and protect newcomers in the three sites secured by UN troops. The mission has raised security throughout the country to level four, meaning that where conditions permit, non-essential UN staff will be evacuated. There have so far been no evacuations.UNOCI said it could not confirm any death toll in Gagnoa, which has so far been a no-go area for neutral forces despite many attempts by UN military observers and peacekeepers to monitor the area, where local Bete and pro-Gbagbo ethnic groups are pitched against Dioula people. The Dioula are mainly from the north, although they settled in Gagnoa decades if not centuries ago. Earlier today, instructions were given for a unit of UN peacekeepers to travel to the town in order to investigate and report back.The situation in Abidjan was quieter with fewer demonstrators on the streets, the mission reported. Some mild economic activities were being restored, a few buses were running and some had opened.Mr. Lubbers expressed deep concern as the number of people fleeing to Liberia climbed to more than 3,000. “Ivorians are fleeing their homes because they are scared,” he said. “If this goes on, there is a big risk of mass displacement of Ivorians and of the Liberian refugees there as well. It is essential that a quick and peaceful solution be found to avoid such a disastrous scenario.”UNHCR offices in surrounding countries are on standby and carrying out inventories of emergency stock and staff that could be re-directed to Liberia or elsewhere should the crisis worsen.”Liberia faces the enormous task of rebuilding, which includes the reintegration of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens,” Mr. Lubbers said. “A large influx of new refugees from Côte d’Ivoire would be very detrimental, creating further poverty and instability. This is why the situation is so worrying, not only for Côte d’Ivoire, but for the entire region.”