Clashes between rival political factions in state-controlled southern Cote d’Ivoire left at least one dead after a weekend of violence, according to the government.
Protests against a national identification programme turned bloody with some eye witness reports putting the death toll at six or more following violence that erupted Sunday in the southern town of Divo, some 200 km northwest of the main city Abidjan.
Orchestrated violence and the presence of armed militias has become a problem in the government controlled south of the divided country since war erupted in 2002.
Doctors said that many of the injured had sustained gunshot wounds after supporters loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo led a protest against plans to launch a national identification programme in the region. Residents said a church was razed and businesses vandalised though it was unclear who fired weapons. Government security forces flew into the area by helicopter to restore calm by late Sunday.
A failed coup in 2002 sparked a civil war that split Cote d’Ivoire with the government maintaining the south and rebels seizing the north. A succession of international mediators has largely failed to reunite the country, with the rebels insisting they will not turn in their weapons until deep-seated questions of national identity are resolved.
The New Forces rebels say that people from the northern regions of Cote d’Ivoire are discriminated against and have been prevented from holding national identity papers, work permits and voter cards by successive southern-dominated governments.
Under UN guidance, a programme of identification is underway that aims to provide some 3.5 million Ivorians with nationality documents through a process of public hearings.
President Gbagbo has criticised the UN, which maintains some 7,000 peacekeepers in Cote d’Ivoire, for being biased in favour of the rebel forces. Gbagbo and his party, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), say that carrying out a process of identification before the fighting factions have handed in their weapons leaves the process wide open to fraud.
Public hearings have been disrupted across the south by Gbagbo supporters. His militant Young Patriots last week threw up barricades in Abidjan to protest the identification process.
There have been no disruptions of the identification process in the rebel north.
Elections are scheduled to take place in October, but UN Secretary General Kofi Annan early this month warned that that date was likely to slip due to delays in the pre-poll preparations.