- Associated Press - Thursday, April 14, 2011

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Teams of Red Cross workers shoveled charred corpses into bags in Ivory Coast’s main city Thursday while U.N. peacekeepers gathered weapons hidden in basements and threw them into dump trucks for disposal.

A coalition of aid agencies on Thursday said the West African country had descended into a humanitarian disaster, with hundreds of thousands at risk without urgent international assistance.

More than a week of heavy fighting turned a city once known as “the Paris of West Africa” into one of deprivation, fear and death. The urban warfare culminated in the arrest on Monday of strongman Laurent Gbagbo. Now President Alassane Ouattara’s first order of business is to get Abidjan functioning again.

“We need to secure the country, notably Abidjan,” Mr. Ouattara said at his first press conference on Wednesday. “There are still arms caches, but we will get rid of them with our allied forces. … These weapons will be gathered and burned.”

Now that fighting has ceased in many parts of the largest city, the people of Abidjan have begun to leave their homes for the first time in more than two weeks.

U.N. spokesman Hamadoun Toure said Thursday that dozens of U.N. vehicles went through Abidjan as part of a peace parade led by U.N. peacekeeping mission head Choi Young-jin.

“We are doing a peace parade throughout the city to assess the improvement in the security situation. We are encouraging people to return to normal,” he said.

More than a million civilians fled their homes amid the fighting, which also completely shut down the economy of the cocoa-producing powerhouse.

Oxfam’s humanitarian manager in Liberia, where about 135,000 Ivorians have fled, said that “many refugees we are working with are too afraid to return home any time soon.”

In some areas, violence continued. A resident of Micao in the industrial zone of Abidjan’s Yopougon suburb said Thursday that forces fighting for Mr. Ouattara, called Republican Forces, were coming to the area at night and dragging out people identified as former soldiers in the defeated army, which was accused of turning heavy weapons on civilians. They then shot them, the resident said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

She said she had found three bodies in an empty plot near her home, and she knew the dead men as soldiers.

On Thursday, soldiers continued firing into the air to scare people, she said, adding that when people flee, their homes then are looted. She said that until this morning people had been walking around within the neighborhood, as they were too scared to go past the roadblocks set up by Mr. Ouattara’s forces on streets leading into other parts of the suburb. Cars also were being stolen, she said.

On Wednesday, a French patrol stopped at the house of Mr. Gbagbo’s last prime minister, Ake N’Gbo. Looters ran out of the gates with their hands in the air, some grasping bottles of wine. Once inside, the patrol found two cases of rockets, two cases of shotgun shells and two cases of banana-shaped magazines for Kalashnikov assault rifles.

The day before, at a residence nearby, the find had been much larger: more than 500 cases of mines, mortars and .50-caliber machine-gun bullets.

“We’ve found considerable quantities of arms,” said Maj. Frederic Daguillon, spokesman for the 1,700-strong French Licorne Force in Ivory Coast. “But it’s not us who takes care of them — it’s the U.N.”

Earlier in the week, Pakistani U.N. peacekeepers arrived at the base of the Republican Guard, Mr. Gbagbo’s most highly trained and best-equipped force. They had to call in a dump truck to haul away the piles of AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and ammunition they found lying around after the base was abandoned when French attack helicopters bombarded it.

A coalition of 13 aid agencies, including Oxfam, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement Thursday that the crisis in Ivory Coast is far from over and the needs of people affected by the extreme fighting continue to escalate.

The agencies said funding desperately is needed to provide lifesaving aid and to rebuild shattered communities. They said pledges so far have fallen “dangerously” short.

Guy Cave, Save the Children’s Ivory Coast director, said: “According to our staff on the ground, displaced children and their families are living in terrible conditions in Duekoue. There are no proper toilets and a huge lack of water, so people can’t keep clean.”

Mr. Cave said the risk of disease spreading is “acute” because of overcrowding. “This is a catastrophic situation, and children need urgent help,” he said.

In Duekoue, the western town where hundreds were killed, U.N. peacekeepers and Red Cross workers have buried more than 200 bodies in two mass graves in the Carrefour neighborhood. An Associated Press reporter who drove past deserted village after village on the road to the border with Liberia was besieged by the sickening sweet stench of decomposing bodies at several points along the road. It rose from dense bush in the tropical forest, indicating many bodies in remote areas are being left to rot.

With giant white flags flying from the backs of their SUVs, Red Cross workers wearing rubber gloves and boots are driving from body to body in Abidjan, carrying out the gruesome task of clearing the streets of corpses, which are loaded into a minibus.

One worker grabbed the collarbone of a charred skeleton, and another took the hips and lifted the jumble into a black plastic body bag. A third man, wearing a white face mask, scraped up the rest of the remains with a metal shovel.

“We receive calls at our call center telling us where the bodies are,” said Franck Kodjo, who led a team that already had picked up more than 20 bodies by midmorning Wednesday from Abidjan’s Cocody district alone.

Three separate armies are patrolling the streets of Abidjan: the white jeeps and trucks of the United Nations, the green camouflaged tanks of the French army and the ragtag pickup trucks of the disparate group of former rebels who fought to put Mr. Ouattara in power.

All three share the same mission of protecting the population and encouraging a return to normality. The United Nations is concerned primarily with weapons caches, the French with protecting foreigners and evacuating them to their base in the south of the city, and the pro-Ouattara forces with elbowing one another for territory, accusing one another of looting and assuming the mantle of authority they fought so hard to win.

Mr. Gbagbo refused to cede power after losing a November election, leading to the standoff that killed untold numbers of people. Mr. Gbagbo was arrested by Ivorian soldiers at his home.

Mr. Ouattara said on Wednesday that Mr. Gbagbo will be kept in a villa and that the justice minister is preparing for his possible prosecution.

“There will be charges on a national level and an international level,” Mr. Ouattara said. “Reconciliation cannot happen without justice.”

Associated Press writer Michelle Faul contributed to this report.

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