Ivory Coast forces accused of extortion, killings

Witnesses, human rights groups and officials say security forces who helped bring Ivory Coast's elected president to power during a political crisis are extorting and killing civilians.

Military officials said members of the Republican Forces -- the official security forces comprised largely of untrained former rebels loyal to President Alassane Ouattara -- killed 10 people in the country's west and south in December. Residents in the commercial capital say extortion and killings are common there.

"Former combatants linked to the Republican Forces continue to wreak havoc on communities around the country, engaging in extortion and criminality," said Matt Wells, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

Ouattara came to power months after he won a disputed 2010 election in which former strongman Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat.

In the spring of 2011 Ouattara enlisted the help of the rebel army, the New Forces, to help him defeat Gbagbo's supporters. Both sides also gave weapons to those who volunteered to fight.

The U.N. reported that 3,000 people died in violence committed by both sides.

Many of the volunteers who fought for Ouattara still carry weapons and wear military uniforms, making it difficult for civilians to identify official members of the military.

Most recently, soldiers shot dead a 21-year-old man in the Abobo suburb of Abidjan, military spokesman Capt. Leon Alla Kouakou said Friday. Witnesses said Fabrice Zamble was killed because he refused to give money to two soldiers.

Kouakou said the soldiers are in custody.

Residents of Abobo, a sprawling slum in the commercial capital, said such incidents are common.

"It's the third time they've killed someone here in the past month," said Elie Gueole, 22.

When asked if all the killings have been reported, he said: "No, everyone is afraid."

Adama Diallo, 18, who was playing video games with Zamble before he was shot, said extortion is nearly an everyday occurrence.

"Every time I'm playing video games they come in asking for money," he said Friday.

Zamble's brother Felix, 30, said he wants a change in the military's behavior.

"I want to have a brigade that respects the rule of law and human rights, that puts people in handcuffs and brings them to the police station when they have committed a crime, not (one that) shoots people."

Wells of Human Rights Watch called on the government to seek justice in the incident.

"If the government is serious about ending the impunity that fuels this predatory behavior, it should waste no time in bringing to justice all those involved in this murder," he said.

The killing in Abobo is the latest in a string of incidents across the country in which soldiers, or men in uniform, have attacked civilians. In December, 10 people were killed by government forces in the western town of Vavoua and the southern town of Sikensi, the military said.

After those killings, the military started to dismantle many of the roadblocks that soldiers and former fighters used to extort money from travelers, according to the International Crisis Group.

The group says that the measure has not solved the problem, however, allowing the illegal activity to spill over into areas like the remote part of the slum where Zamble was killed.

"In the rural areas and some outlying districts of Abidjan, such as Abobo, extortion of the general public remains a daily problem and increases the distrust that has existed for years between the security forces and civilians," the group reported in December.

Human rights groups have reported extortion, killings and impunity by government-controlled forces and by the former rebel soldiers, who were known as the New Forces, for years.

The New Forces imposed "taxes" on locals, Human Rights Watch reported in 2006. The group said in a report that New Forces there "subject(ed) the villagers to routine extortion and theft."