Mobs and security forces allied to Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo attacked at least six U.N. vehicles Thursday, setting some ablaze and injuring two people in the latest round of violence sparked by this West African nation's disputed election.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the attacks by loyalists of Gbagbo, who the U.N. says lost the Nov. 28 poll to longtime opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.
Ban said the attacks by "regular and irregular forces" constituted crimes under international law, and warned that those responsible would be held accountable. Other officials with the global body sounded an alarm, warning they were being prevented from protecting civilians.
Gbagbo has refused to accept the outcome of the November poll and has ordered the U.N.'s 9,000-strong peacekeeping mission to leave. The U.N. has refused, and its troops have increasingly come under attack, including earlier this week when gunmen wounded three peacekeepers after their car crashed, said spokesman Kenneth Blackman.
In the violence Thursday, Ban said one military vehicle belonging to the U.N. peacekeeping mission was burned, and a doctor and driver of an ambulance targeted in one attack were injured.
An Associated Press reporter saw a U.N. vehicle smoldering, its U.N. insignia charred, as a crowd of men gathered around. Witnesses said the vehicle had been stopped by young men in the Riviera II neighborhood, near a university campus packed with Gbagbo supporters. Two international journalists that attempted to photograph the car when it was still in flames had their cameras confiscated by security forces.
Also Thursday, a spokesman for the U.N. human rights office in Geneva, Rupert Colville, said the U.N. has been trying to investigate an alleged third mass grave in Issia in central Ivory Coast, but hasn't been able to confirm it.
The U.N. has already been blocked from the site of two other alleged mass graves in the lush, cocoa-producing country. Colville wasn't immediately able to say whether the investigation into those two sites has progressed.
In Abidjan, officials with the global body also said they were being prevented from protecting civilians and from reaching neighborhoods where Gbagbo's army is accused of carrying out grave abuses.
Those barring their way are typically not armed, but because the U.N.'s mandate does not allow them to open fire, entire convoys including their armored personnel carriers have been forced to make U-turns at roadblocks consisting of no more than a crowd of shouting youth.
On the other side are communities that are being systematically punished for having voted for opposition leader Ouattara, who was recognized as the winner of the recent vote, first by the country's election commission, then by a special U.N. team called on to certify the results.
The U.N. mission in Abidjan had a teleconference with New York headquarters this week to get instructions on what to do and whether they should force their way through to reach civilians in danger.
There was no clear answer, said an official who was on the call and who was not authorized to speak on the matter. The U.N. is in a particularly delicate position, because Gbagbo is using state TV to diffuse propaganda, including false reports that peacekeepers have opened fire on civilians.
"Our approach has been to not be alarmist, or sensationalist ... and we cannot say that Ivory Coast is on the verge of a genocide," said Simon Munzu, the human rights chief of the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast. "But we need to be vigilant, because we are seeing the same phenomena that elsewhere resulted in a genocide."
Though many fear war could erupt anew in Ivory Coast, an organized mass genocide on the scale Rwanda in 1994 — when ethnic Hutus slaughtered at least half a million people, mostly Tutsis, in 100 days — is unlikely. Ivory Coast is home to a complex patchwork of around 60 ethnic groups.
Over the past week, at least 30 people have been killed bringing the death toll to 247 since the November vote, said Munzu.
"In Rwanda, do not forget, the armed forces worked in connivance with (civilian) militias," said Munzu. "It should not be that the while we are here in (Ivory Coast) that a genocide is being prepared under our eyes. ... We need to be allowed to work, to be given back our freedom of movement."
For the past two days, the U.N. has attempted to reach a neighborhood called PK 18 in the commune of Abobo, which has been in a state of siege since security forces launched an attack there, killing at least four civilians. The neighborhood fought back and as many as seven policemen were slain, prompting the head of the army to impose a curfew.
After midnight on Thursday, a convoy led by U.N. Special Representative Choi Young-jin finally got to the neighborhood. Choi stayed for around two hours; the rest of the unit stayed until dawn. Residents say that while the U.N. were there, the neighborhood was calm.
On Thursday night, a large number of troops — numbering as many as 200 — were seen heading toward Abobo just before the 7 p.m. curfew was about to begin. Witnesses say the soldiers had taken over one side of the highway. The unit included three cargo trucks, at least four pickups and four more vehicles packed with security forces, as well as about 80 soldiers walking on foot.
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.