More than 22 people have been killed and several women raped in central Ivory Coast since December by men who fought in last year's postelection violence and have yet to be disarmed, an international rights group said Monday.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the government should quickly disarm former combatants and equip the police and gendarmes with the resources to protect the population and investigate violent crimes.

"The Ivorian people have suffered countless horrors," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to show it intends to end this violence by disarming former combatants and ensuring that police and gendarmes are equipped to protect Ivorians and stem the rampant criminality around Bouake."

Bouake is the former capital of the rebel army, the New Forces, who attempted a coup d'etat in 2002 that ignited a civil war and resulted in the nation's de facto split between a rebel-held north and government-controlled south.

President Alassane 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 northern rebels to help him defeat Gbagbo's supporters. Both sides also gave weapons to those who volunteered to fight. The U.N. said that 3,000 people died in violence committed by both sides.

Ouattara's army, the Republican Forces, is largely composed of the former rebels and has been accused of numerous violations against the civilian population.

Ivorian government spokesman Bruno Kone said the government is aware there is lawlessness and is attempting to curb it. But, he said the process is "difficult" due to the "several thousand" illegal weapons in circulation.

"Unfortunately there are a lot of guns still circulating in the country and a lot of them entered the country under Gbagbo's regime," Kone said.

Human Rights Watch also commended the Ivorian government for some recent attempts to stem the crime. It said the government has acknowledged road banditry, set up a military police unit, arrested soldiers engaged in crime and has attempted to unify the fractured military.

Yet, the group said the response of the police and gendarmes to rampant crime has been "ineffective" and that the Republican Forces "continue to assume the primary crime-fighting role in many parts of the country."

For months following last year's crisis, the police and gendarmes remained unarmed.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry denied the allegation that the police and gendarmes are ineffective and said they are now armed.

"They are patrolling. They are arresting criminals every day," Bazoumane Coulibaly said.

Residents near Bouake, however, say their own security situation has worsened in past months, the group reported.

Victims told Human Rights Watch that attackers armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles blocked roads with wood or cars, then robbed people in passing vehicles. Several women told the group they were stripped of their clothing as the bandits looked for cash, then raped.

"One woman was raped in front of other passengers after her father was gunned down in front of her, while another woman described being forced into the surrounding vegetation and raped by two men," the statement said.

Residents in Abidjan's neighborhood of Abobo also told The Associated Press on Friday that crime has worsened in their neighborhood, reporting that men in military uniforms have killed three people there in the past month.