Many more bodies lie in the mass graves discovered near the rebel-held city of Korhogo in northern Cote d'Ivoire than the 99 revealed by a UN human rights team earlier this week, according a diplomat closely connected with the investigation.
The source told IRIN that the UN investigators counted a total of 99 complete bodies, which are thought to be the remains of people killed during clashes between rival factions of the rebel movement last month.
However, beneath these, lay the remains of other bodies in an advanced state of decomposition and it was impossible to say accurately how many bodies they represented, the source told IRIN.
And beneath this second layer of decomposed bodies, the UN investigation team discovered a third layer of corpses, he added, without giving further details.
The United Nations mission in Cote d'Ivoire, which is known by its French acronym ONUCI, said in a statement on Monday that "the commision of inquiry discovered and confirmed the existence of three mass graves containing at least 99 people. Some of these people were killed by bullets. According to several credible witnesses, others died from asphyxiation."
But the source said the figure of 99 represented just those bodies that the UN investigators "were able to count."
Asked about a report by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) last Friday that the UN investigators had actually found four mass graves containing about 150 bodies, he dismissed it.
Several residents in Korhogo, a city 650 km north of the commercial capital Abidjan, told IRIN that they believed up to 500 died in heavy fighting in the city between supporters of rebel leader Guillaume Soro and his exiled rival Ibrahim Coulibaly, who is widely known as "IB," and in a manhunt for suspected IB supporters afterwards.
The rebel New Forces movement said straight after the event that the clashes began with an assassination attempt on Soro, who was in Korhogo at the time, and that only 22 people died. It has reserved comment on the UN statement implying that casualties were much higher until the investigation team's full report is published.
Diplomats said the revelations about mass graves in Korhogo were likely to prove as embarrassing for the rebels as a UN investigation into the government's violent repression of an opposition demonstration in Abidjan in March, which revealed that at least 120 people had been killed by the security forces, many of them innocent civilians. The government said only 37 died.
RADDHO, a Dakar-based human rights organisations, reacted to news of the mass graves in Korhogo by calling for an international war crimes tribunal to be set up in Cote d'Ivoire, modelled on Sierra Leone's Special Court, which is presently trying those deemed to bear the greatest responsibility for atrocities committed during that country's 1991-2001 civil war.
Indeed, RADDHO suggested that the remit of the Sierra Leone court should simply be extended to include war crimes committed in Cote d'Ivoire since President Laurent Gbagbo came to power in 2000.
RADDHO (The African Assembly for the Defence of Human Rights) said: "The culture of masscare and barbarism is taking root in both the north and south of Cote d'Ivoire in a way that is similar to what took place in Rwanda."
Meanwhile, reports from France suggested that IB might soon be on his way back to Cote d'Ivoire to challenge Soro's leadership of the rebel movement in a more direct and personal manner.
IB, a former master sargent in the Ivorian army, who helped mastermind a successful coup in 1999, has been living in France for the past year. He and 11 other men were arrested by the French authorities on August 23 2003 on suspicion of planning to destabilise Cote d'Ivoire with the help of mercenaries.
IB and most of the others were released three weeks later, but the Ivorian rebel hero was banned from leaving France and returning to his home in Burkina Faso while investigations continued.
However, Radio France Internationale reported on Thursday that a Paris court had lifted the travel ban earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Ivorians are waiting for Gbagbo to take the first steps towards reconvening Cote d'Ivoire's broad-based government of national reconciliation for the first time in four months, following a West African summit in Accra last week aimed at putting the country's derailed peace process back on track.
In New York, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said he expected the cabinet, which includes nine rebel ministers and representatives of the main parliamentary opposition parties, to meet with the president on Monday.
The rebel movement and the opposition parties withdrew their 26 ministers from the government in March in protest at Gbagbo's heavy-handed repression of the banned opposition demonstration on 25 March.
At the Accra summit, which was attended by Annan, the Ivorian factions agreed to resurrect the coalition government and legislate a series of political reforms to clear the way for the start of a long delayed disarmament programme on 15 October.
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
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