By Ange Aboa and Joe Bavier
ABIDJAN, July 20 (Reuters) - Angry mobs set fire to a U.N.-guarded camp for civilians forced from their homes in western Ivory Coast on Friday, killing three people, according to one witness, in an apparent revenge attack for a nearby overnight robbery.
The Nahibly camp holds 5,000 Ivorians who fled their homes during last year's civil war and is near the town of Duekoue where a police official said five people were killed in a robbery on Thursday night.
"This morning, something like 3,000 people descended on the Nahibly camp to look for their goods and search for the thieves, and they set fire to the camp, starting with the health centre," Ann Encontre, head of the U.N. refugee arm UNHCR in Ivory Coast said by telephone.
A source at the main hospital in Duekoue said at least 20 people had arrived with injuries from the camp attack.
Camp resident Murielle Kape, who was at a bus station, among scores trying to flee the violence, said she saw three dead.
"(They) arrived this morning and started to chase us from the camp and set it on fire. They killed three people in front of my eyes, and so I fled with my son," she said by telephone.
The camp, the country's only remaining facility for those displaced by last year's war, is managed by the UNHCR and partner agencies. A detachment of armed peacekeepers from Ivory Coast's U.N. peacekeeping mission, UNOCI, was deployed outside Nahibly to protect the camp's residents.
Officials from the U.N. mission contacted by Reuters said they were not able to comment on the events.
Witnesses told Reuters that the attack on the camp was a response to an attack during the night by gunmen on a neighbourhood not far from the camp.
"It was a robbery that left five dead in the Kokoma neighbourhood ... We've now deployed our men in the town to avoid the youths going out for revenge and aggravating the situation," a police official in Duekoue said, asking not to be named.
Many of the camp's residents fled into Duekoue early on Friday to seek shelter at the Catholic mission there, which a local priest said had also been threatened by crowds of angry youths. Others were attempting to leave the town.
"Everything is on fire. We don't know if there are dead inside (the camp), because we can't get close. But we can see it burning and the smoke ... It's horrible. I don't have words," one witness told Reuters by telephone.
Ivory Coast's civil war, which erupted after then president Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept his defeat at the poll in late 2010, killed around 3,000 people and forced 1 million to flee their homes.
Duekoue, in the heart of some the country's richest cocoa farmland, has long been a flashpoint for ethnic violence aggravated by disputes over land ownership. Human rights investigators say around 800 people were massacred there during last year's conflict.
Although much of the country is rebounding from the conflict, tension remains high in the west and there have been a number of cross-border raids by Gbagbo supporters who fled across the nearby border to Liberia.
The United Nations estimates that there are some 86,000 still displaced in Ivory Coast, mostly living with host families. (Editing by Mark John and David Lewis)