Unidentified assailants wielding hunting rifles and knives killed at least 41 people and injured 64 after going on the rampage and torching two villages in the dead of night in Cote d’Ivoire’s volatile west, officials said on Wednesday.
"The death toll stands at 41. Some were killed with hunting rifles, others with knives, and 11 people were burned alive," army spokesman Jules Yao Yao told IRIN. "The army has been deployed to secure the region."
A group of unidentified men attacked the sleeping residents of two villages within walking distance of the town of Duekoue at around 3 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Theodore Ble, a local official from the Ministry of Social Affairs told IRIN by telephone.
"It's a terrible attack and we think it was well-organized," Ble told IRIN by telephone.
By noon, crowds of mostly women and children could be seen in the streets of Duekoue, hauling bags and bundles with them, a member of the UN mission in Cote d’Ivoire (ONUCI) told IRIN.
The official, who asked not to be named, said more than 1,000 people appeared to have fled the violence.
Ble said hundreds of frightened villagers were seeking refuge in the Catholic Mission and at the town hall in Duekoue, which lies about 500 km from the de facto capital Abidjan.
"There is a massive exodus, just like last month," he said.
As many as 10,000 people fled their homes in May and hunkered down in the grounds of the Catholic Mission after fighting between local people and immigrants left a score of people dead.
Kim Gordon-Bates, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told IRIN that it was impossible for the moment to estimate how many people had been displaced.
“The situation is extremely tense,” he said. “Our priority is to find building materials for shelters at the Catholic Mission.”
Farmers in the area were quoted by Reuters news agency as saying people were too frightened to remain in the countryside. "We have taken refuge in town. There's no work going on at the moment," said Mamadou Cherif. "Nobody can take the risk of going into the bush. There's no trade, shops have been shut since yesterday."
Another farmer Mamadou Kone said: “I'm worried that there will be a civil war between civilians. I don't know what is being reserved for us after dark.”
“We heard that the locals have brought in reinforcements in militia fighters and Liberian fighters," he said.
Tit-for-tat killings have been ongoing in the unsettled west of war-divided Cote d’Ivoire for months.
Wednesday’s violence erupted in the villages of Guitrozon and Petit Duekoue, that are mostly home to people of the local Guere ethnic group, and are located just a kilometre outside of Duekoue on the main road to the rebel-held town of Man.
One local official said the latest trouble appeared to have been a revenge attack for the killing of four farmers from the Senoufo ethnic group that hails from the northern part of the country.
Jaro Karim, a leader of the local Burkinabe immigrant community, said the four farmers had been found dead on a road near Duekoue last week.
"It seems that this triggered the attack on the villages," Karim told IRIN by telephone. "It's a tragedy".
Cote d’Ivoire, the world’s top cocoa producer, has been divided into a government-controlled south and a rebel-held north since September 2002, when rebels made a failed bid to topple President Laurent Gbagbo.
Duekoue lies near the UN-patrolled buffer zone between the two sides and the surrounding area with its lush and fertile plantations is an important cocoa growing region.
The cocoa plantations in the region have long been at the heart of a dispute between local Guere landowners and immigrant farmers who have cultivated the fertile land for decades.
But mutual distrust has been exacerbated by the civil war. Shortly after the failed rebel coup of 2002, thousands of immigrant farmers were chased off their plantations by locals who accused them of sympathising with the New Forces rebel movement.