- Associated Press - Saturday, June 9, 2012

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Ivorian government forces will launch a military operation to hunt down the men responsible for an ambush that killed at least seven peacekeepers in an unprecedented attack on U.N. forces in the country. Officials said Saturday that at least eight civilians also were killed in the area.

Hundreds of villagers were fleeing the region near the Liberian border, though authorities were unable to confirm any additional casualties Saturday because of the remoteness of the area in southwestern Ivory Coast.

While Ivory Coast’s political crisis after the November 2010 election led to violence that left some 3,000 people dead, Friday’s attack was a rare assault on the United Nations, which has had a peacekeeping mission here since 2004.

“This is the first time we have ever had such a type of attack in Ivory Coast. It’s a very tough time for the whole mission here right now,” said Sylvie van den Wildenberg, acting spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast.

An Ivorian Cabinet official who was briefed on the matter said President Alassane Ouattara requested helicopter gunships from the U.N. and expected them to arrive by Monday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Ivorian Deputy Defense Minister Paul Koffi Koffi said government forces, along with Liberian and U.N. forces, will launch an operation on June 15 to find the men responsible, whom he described as “militiamen or mercenaries.”

Mr. Koffi Koffi said the forces could not respond sooner because it would take time to gather equipment and prepare the forces.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack “in the strongest possible terms,” saying he was “saddened and outraged” about the deaths of the peacekeepers, all from Niger. He urged the government of Ivory Coast to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

Later on Friday, the U.N. Security Council released a press statement condemning the attack.

Bert Koenders, the U.N. envoy to the West African nation, said the peacekeepers were part of a patrol south of the town of Tai, an area the U.N. mission recently reinforced because of threats of attacks against the civilian population. The ambush involved a large group of armed men, a U.N. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

“Their colleagues are still in danger,” Mr. Ban told reporters. “Even tonight, after the attack, more than 40 peacekeepers remain with the villagers in this remote region to protect them from this armed group.”

The mayor of Tai, Desire Gnonkonte, told AP that hundreds of villagers were fleeing the area.

Ms. van den Wildenberg said several vehicles were on a reconnaissance patrol near the village of Para on the southern axis of Tai to follow up on “rumors of movement of armed people in the area and threats on the security of civilians.”

“There were several vehicles on the patrol, and the leading vehicles were strongly hit,” Ms. van den Wildenberg said. “The area is densely forested and very tough terrain.”

Once a stable nation, the world’s largest cocoa producer was split into a rebel-controlled north and government-controlled south after an attempted coup sparked civil war in 2002. A peace deal in March 2007 brought key rebel leaders into the administration and offered hope for a single government after years of foundering accords and disarmament plans.

But the country headed to the brink of civil war after a presidential runoff in early 2011 when then-President Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat after losing to Mr. Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the election. Mr. Gbagbo was arrested with the help of U.N. and French forces in April 2011 and now is facing charges of war crimes at The Hague. Mr. Ouattara was sworn in as president soon after.

Following Mr. Gbagbo’s arrest, many of the mercenaries and militiamen who fought for him fled across the porous border into Liberia’s forests, or clandestinely, into its refugee camps.

Western Ivory Coast has remained particularly unstable, and Human Rights Watch said earlier this week that armed groups in Liberia who supported Mr. Gbagbo have killed at least 40 civilians in cross-border raids into Ivory Coast since July. The deaths have all been near Tai, Human Rights Watch said.

“In the four cross-border attacks since June 2011, the motivation appears to have been both political vengeance and related to land conflict — issues that overlap in Ivory Coast’s volatile west. Those killed or whose houses were burned predominantly belong to ethnic groups that largely voted for president Ouattara,” the group said in its report.

Matt Wells, West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, told AP that the organization hasn’t confirmed details of the attack but “pro-Gbagbo militants have conducted repeated raids from Liberia into this region of Ivory Coast.”

“The Gbagbo camp often resorted to inciting rhetoric against U.N. personnel during the Ivorian crisis, though today’s deadly attack is the first of its kind during the recent Ivorian crisis,” Mr. Wells said

“Liberian and Ivorian authorities need to quickly work together to bring to account those involved in this heinous act,” he said.

At the end of April, the United Nations said there were about 9,400 peacekeeping troops, 200 military observers and 1,350 international police in the mission along with civilian staff. More than 40 countries are contributing military personnel.

Laura Burke reported from Accra, Ghana. Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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