At least 120 people were killed by the government security forces and their militia allies after opposition parties in Cote d'Ivoire tried to stage a banned demonstration against President Laurent Gbagbo in Abidjan at the end of March, according to a leaked report by UN human rights investigators.
Their report was obtained by Radio France Internationale and published in full on its website on Monday. Its findings were widely reported by Ivorian newspapers on Tuesday.
Asked whether the document was genuine, a source at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) declined to comment.
"To us the report is still confidential," the source told IRIN by telephone from Geneva. "We have submitted it to the Secretary General (of the United Nations) and have circulated it in-house."
The document published by RFI blamed Gbagbo's security forces squarely for the bloodshed. It said many of the killings took place "in the dwellings of would-be demonstrators or even innocent civilians targeted by the security forces."
The report said: "What happened on March 25 and afterwards was the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians by the security forces. There is overwhelming evidence which suggests that these killings were mostly unprovoked and unnecessary to deal with the demonstrators."
It said that individuals from northern Cote d'Ivoire and immigrants from Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger were "specially targetted" in a "carefully planned and executed operation by the security forces," even though these communities had "little or nothing to do with the march."
"All available evidence suggests that there was no significant threat to the security forces posed by the demonstrators," the report said .The level of violence employed by the police, army and pro-Gbagbo militia "was not proportional to the situation," it stressed.
A team of three international human rights experts was sent to Cote d'Ivoire last month by the UNHCHR to investigate the outburst of political violence in Abidjan on 25 and 26 March.
The version of their report leaked to RFI said: "At least 120 people were killed, 274 wounded and 20 disappeared. These figures are by no means final."
This represents something of an embarassment for the government of Cote d'Ivoire, which said only 37 people died in the disturbances which it described as an attempt by opposition parties and rebels occupying the north of the country to seize power.
Sources at the presidency and the Ivorian Ministry for Human Rights told IRIN they had not yet received official copies of the OHCHR report.
However, one source close to President Gbagbo described the document published by RFI as "unjust and unbalanced."
"This report was written before the mission started," he added.
The Abidjan daily Nouveau Reveil quoted Cisse Bacongo, a senior figure in the Rally for the Republic (RDR), an opposition party viewed by many as close to the northern rebel movement, as saying "We are satisfied with the pre-report."
Cote d'Ivoire's opposition parties had previously estimated that 350 to 500 people died in the bloodshed.
Following the security forces' heavy handed repression of the banned demonstration, the rebel "New Forces" movement and the four main opposition parties in parliament withdrew their 26 ministers from a broad-based government of national reconciliation and broke off their political dialogue with President Gbagbo.
Since then, the implementation of a January 2003 peace agreement aimed at ending Cote d'Ivoire's civil war has been frozen.
The UN report leaked to RFI recommended criminal investigations before an independent court with a view to prosecuting those responsible for the "indiscriminate killings" on 25 and 26 March, especially the commanders of the military units involved and the commanders of so-called "parallel forces" which operated alongside them.
It called for the creation of a well-resourced International Commission of Inquiry to investigate all allegations of grave human rights abuse committed in Cote d'Ivoire since the country plunged into civil war in September 2002.
The report recommended the establishment of a mixed human rights court that would include foreign judges to prosecute those responsible for major human rights violations committed prior to the incidents last March.
It also called for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the dismantling of all "militias and parallel forces".
The report blamed opposition leaders for calling the 25 March without being prepared to take part in it themselves because of the risks involved. But it added: "Their political responsibility, however,cannot be in any way comparable to the actions of the security forces and the massive violations of human rights they committed."
Abidjan newspapers went to town on the report. "Gbagbo in hot water," said Le Jour in a front-page headline. "The truth at last" said the independent daily "24 Heures."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Help us be the transformation we’d like to see in the news industry
The current journalistic model is broken: Audiences are demanding that the hierarchical, elite-led system of news-gathering and presentation be dismantled in favour of a more inclusive and holistic model based on more equitable access to information and more nuanced and diverse narratives.
The business model is also broken, with many media going bankrupt during the pandemic – despite their information being more valuable than ever – because of a dependence on advertisers.
Finally, exploitative and extractive practices have long been commonplace in media and other businesses.
We think there is a better way. We want to build something different.
Our new five-year strategy outlines how we will do so. It is an ambitious vision to become a transformative newsroom – and one that we need your support to achieve.
Become a member of The New Humanitarian by making a regular contribution to our work - and help us deliver on our new strategy.