Sun, Aug 08, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Survivors tell of container `massacre' in Ivory Coast

AP , KORHOGO, IVORY COAST

Dozens of boys and men suffocated to death, locked for days in an airless, sweltering shipping container by rebels controlling northern Ivory Coast, two survivors told reporters.

The accounts, and stories from a family of numerous missing men, support UN and Amnesty International findings on three newly discovered mass graves in the country's rebel-held north. The killings occurred during a flare of factional fighting in June.

An unspecified number of the 99 dead buried in the graves appeared to have suffocated, the UN said Monday in a preliminary statement. The UN Security Council called the killings a "massacre."

"We were in difficult conditions: no water, no food, no air. Sometimes they pumped tear gas into the container," said Siaka, one survivor, who spoke to reporters on condition he not be identified further.

Detainees were packed too tightly to move -- and for some, too tightly to breathe, said Siaka, who explained that he lived by gasping air through a small hole in the top of the container.

"I thought I was going to die," a second survivor, 25-year-old herdsman Amadou, told reporters on Friday.

Surviving was "a miracle. It's due to God."

Amadou, who declined to be further identified, said he counted 75 dead inside the container. He said another three detainees disappeared after being forced to help dispose of the bodies.

The allegations represent the most serious charges of rights abuses lodged against Ivory Coast's rebels since they took control of the north in a nine-month civil war, which officially ended in July 2003.

Rebel spokesman Alain Lobognon denied that the container -- 12m-long by 2.75m-high yellow metal box, formerly at the entrance of a rebel-held military base -- had been used to imprison people. Lobognon would not comment on the other allegations.

The alleged killings occurred during the first major factional fighting in rebel ranks, a June 20 uprising by followers of dissident rebel leader Ibrahim Coulibaly.

Supporters of the main rebel leader, Guillaume Soro, put the challenge down within days. Soro's forces put the death toll in the uprising at just 22.

Rebels have held the north of cocoa-rich Ivory Coast -- once one of West Africa's most stable and prosperous nations -- since launching an unsuccessful coup attempt in September 2002.

The civil war that followed split Ivory Coast between the mainly Muslim north and predominantly Christian and animist south.

Over the past year, troops and militias loyal to Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo have been accused of numerous abuses, including the killing of at least 120 people during and after an attempted March opposition rally in the southern commercial capital, Abidjan.

However, survivors and others now accuse followers of the main rebel leader, Guillaume Soro, of killing dozens of prisoners, many of them civilians, during and after the June uprising.

Amnesty International said it believed some of the 99 mass grave victims had their hands tied behind their backs before being beheaded, while others suffocated in shipping containers.

Korhogo residents said the container in front of the town's main army base had been regularly used as a prison by the city's rebel military commander, Fofie Kouakou.

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