ICRC warns civilians trapped by Ivory Coast fighting

31st March 2011, Comments 0 comments

The international Red Cross on Thursday warned that thousands of civilians were trapped by the conflict in Ivory Coast, as forces allied to Alassane Ouattara closed in on the main city of Abidjan.

"The ICRC is particularly concerned at the prospect of all out confrontations taking place in the country's main urban centres, in particular with concern about what may happen in Abidjan," said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"This is a significant concern of ours," he told journalists, expressing "deep fear" at the prospect of fighting with heavy weapons in densely populated areas.

According to UN agencies at least 474 people have died in violence linked to last November's presidential election, which the international community recognised Ouattara as having won.

At least 100,000 have sought refuge in Liberia amid allegations of human rights abuses on both sides, as strongman Laurent Gbagbo refuses to step aside for Ouattara, a former prime minister.

Casualties, killed and injured, were already "running in to the thousands," said Kraehenbuehl.

The senior ICRC official underlined that the situation for civilians and aid workers was already highly volatile. He questioned the degree of control each side had over militias, including foreign ones, after fighting escalated across the country.

"We have had long standing experience in West Africa and we know how rapidly this can spiral out of control with devastating effects for the population," he added.

"The issue is about civilians being caught up and locked into the violence."

ICRC staff in the country had found evidence of "multiple rounds" of looting in towns and villages mainly attributed to militias from both sides, as well as accounts of physical and sexual violence on civilians, he explained.

People were unable to reach health posts or hospitals in the areas of heavy fighting.

"I have to underline how volatile the situation is, first and foremost for the population itself but also for our teams. Checkpoints are numerous, the behaviour by fighters at some of those is particularly unpredictable," Kraehenbuehl added, warning that the situation was likely to worsen.

The ICRC appealed for an additional 15 million Swiss francs ($16.2 million, 11.5 million euros) for humanitarian aid in Ivory Coast, and 5.5 million francs for refugees in neighbouring Liberia.

© 2011 AFP

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