ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – A youth leader who backs the president clinging to power in Ivory Coast has called on people to chase out foreigners from their neighborhoods, while the U.N. expressed alarm about a "disturbing escalation" in violence in recent days.
The comments by Charles Ble Goude raise new concerns for the safety of U.N. personnel and other international workers in Ivory Coast. Goude already has been sanctioned by the U.N. for inciting hatred, and youth led by him attacked French citizens in 2004. An untold number of French women also were gang raped.
Goude said Friday that the political crisis in Ivory Coast was coming to a head three months after the disputed election, and he said now was the time for "real" Ivorians to protect the country.
Bloody clashes between security forces loyal to incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo and militias allied with his political rival have left dozens dead this week. The United Nations has warned that this week's escalation is a breach of a six-year-old cease-fire.
"These developments mark a disturbing escalation, which draws the country closer to the brink of re-igniting civil war," said Martin Nesirky, U.N. spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Meanwhile, a military spokesman loyal to Gbagbo went on state television late Friday and accused a U.N. peacekeeper of fatally shooting a police officer. The U.N. denied the report.
Col. Hilaire Gohourou, said an officer was "shamefully assassinated" during the handover of three pro-Gbagbo protesters, who had been arrested by the U.N. earlier in the day in Daloa, in the center of the country.
But the U.N. information officer in Daloa, Malik Faye, said no one was wounded or killed after guards were forced to fire into the air to disperse the crowd.
Gbagbo had been in power for more than a decade and has remained in office months after the international community said he lost the Nov. 28 vote to his rival Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara remains confined to the grounds of a resort hotel where he is under 24-hour U.N. guard.
In the three months since the election, Gbagbo's security forces have pummeled pro-Ouattara neighborhoods, killing as many as 300 people, according to the U.N. But this week for the first time, a pro-Ouattara group calling itself the "invisible commandos' began fighting back.
The group claimed in a news release to have killed 27 police and paramilitary forces loyal Gbagbo in the Abobo district of Abidjan. Daily battles with machine guns, grenades and rocket launchers have continued throughout the city ever since.
Gbagbo spokesman Ahoua Don Mello called the fighters who've taken up arms in Abobo "terrorists" and said they were drawn from the group of rebels allied with Ouattara.
Ouattara's camp denies any connection with the commandos. Spokesman Patrick Achi says they are citizens tired of police attacks who are defending themselves.
"The people of Abobo have been subject to the worst police brutality, killings and harassment for the last two years, they're fed up," he said, adding that he believes they got their weapons from dead police and soldiers.
Locals say the commandos wear magic amulets that they believe protect them from bullets. Their leader is called Commander "Fonyant," which means "wind" in the Malinke language — because his presence can be felt, but not seen.
On Friday, streams of people could be seen fleeing the area with their families and possessions.
"The shooting and explosions have been going on all week," said Isaac Traore, who was fleeing Abobo with his family on foot. "As soon as it stopped, we left to go stay with my aunt."
Among the Traore's group of 12, the men carried plastic bags and backpacks, the women babies on their backs and bundles on their heads.
There will be little room for them all in their aunt's small apartment, "but it's better than being killed," Traore said.
Associated Press Writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.