DAKAR (AlertNet) - Thousands of people uprooted by violence are trapped in Ivory Coast without access to humanitarian assistance after forces loyal to presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara launched a major military offensive, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a statement on Tuesday.
In the western town of Duekoue, about 400km northwest of the main city Abidjan, fighting between forces supporting incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara fighters has uprooted about 20,000 Ivoirians and West African migrants. The displaced have found refuge in an overcrowded Catholic mission in the town with little or no access to shelter, food, water and health facilities.
"Conditions at the Catholic mission are fast becoming unbearable," Jacques Seurt, the IOM emergency coordinator in Ivory Coast, said.
"Terrified displaced persons have been streaming in, some with gunshot wounds as they cannot receive emergency treatment from the local hospital. All are seeking protection from the fighting. We call upon belligerents to ensure the mission remains a safe haven for the displaced," Seurt said.
Amnesty International is urging the U.N. peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast (UNOCI) to protect those sheltering in the Catholic mission.
“The UNOCI mandate in Côte d’Ivoire requires the peacekeepers to protect civilians at imminent threat of physical violence. They must act immediately to prevent further bloodshed,” Veronique Aubert, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Africa, said.
“The UNOCI camp is only about 3 km away from Duekoue and we are urging them to use all means necessary to protect civilians against the violence taking place on their own doorstep,” Aubert said.
A violent dispute over last November's presidential election has rekindled the civil war the poll was meant to settle for good, with Gbagbo refusing to cede power to Ouattara who is recognised internationally as the winner.
Heavy fighting has now spread in Abidjan and across much of a north-south ceasefire line.
Up to one million Ivorians have fled fighting in Abidjan alone, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Others have been uprooted across the country and about 110,000 have crossed into Liberia to the west.
With pro-Ouattara forces reportedly moving southwards to surround the town of Guiglo, access to thousands of displaced people - Ivoirians, Burkinabes, Malians and Guineans - has become impossible.
Many have been living out in the open for more than a week without food, water or access to health care. Others are sheltering in and around a local church and the town hall.
Violence also continues to grow in Abidjan where 10 civilians were shot down on Monday by security forces loyal to Gbagbo, according to the United Nations.
The insecurity has impeded relief efforts, and U.N. agencies and other aid organisations are targeted by some of the groups involved in the fighting.
"In Abidjan, it is simply impossible to access the beneficiaries," Cyprien Fabre, the West Africa regional head of the European Commission's humanitarian and civil protection arm (ECHO), said.
"Most emergency people have to negotiate on a daily basis for very tiny access and very few NGOs are operating in the worst-hit neighbourhoods, and the U.N. teams cannot go there because they are targeted," Fabre, who is just back from Abidjan, told AlertNet in Dakar.
Aid agencies say there is a growing number of Ivoirians who are fleeing to Ghana from Abidjan. They say they had to sell their belongings to pay for transport to the border, the IOM said.