Abidjan: Post-election violence claimed 52 lives in the Ivory Coast in the past week, bringing the death toll this year to 462, as strongman Laurent Gbagbo defiantly clings to power, the UN mission said on Thursday.
Rocket fire and shelling on Thursday rocked the Abidjan suburb of Abobo, a stronghold of internationally recognised President Alassane Ouattara, witnesses said, as violence continued to grip the world`s top cocoa producer.
The United Nations Operation in Ivory Coast (UNOCI) also said the west of the country was wracked by violence and confusion, and a warehouse belonging to the UN refugee agency had been looted by a group of militia.
During the week, "shelling and indiscriminate violence against civilians claimed at least 52 lives including five children and seven women, as well as several dozen injured”, the UN mission`s deputy human rights director Guillaume Ngefa told a press conference.
"The total number of deaths has gone up to 462 since mid-December" 2010, he added.
The Ivory Coast was thrust into a cycle of violence after the November 28 run-off election left both candidates claiming the presidency.
In Abobo, where much of the recent unrest in Abidjan has centred, a resident said: "We can hear heavy weapons fire, rockets and shells, coming from Plateau-Dokui”, in the south of the suburb.
"There is no one outside, only the FDS (Gbagbo`s Defence and Security Forces). I saw some on board a pick-up with machine guns," he added, on condition of anonymity.
Pro-Ouattara fighters have in the past few weeks clashed violently with troops loyal to Gbagbo, as they attempt to move out of their Abobo stronghold and infiltrate surrounding suburbs.
The UN on Thursday warned both Gbagbo`s forces and local militias backing Ouattara that "deliberately launching generalised or systematic attacks against civilian populations could constitute crimes against humanity”.
Ngefa said residents of the commercial capital Abidjan "continue to massively flee their suburbs due to the violence and a lack of access to food and medicine”.
In the west of Ivory Coast, rival forces battled for strategic towns.
"There has been a lot of violence, a lot of confusion in Guiglo. There have been attacks and looting against a United Nations agency. The HCR warehouse was looted," UNOCI spokesman Hamadoun Toure said at the same press conference.
"The situation is still confused, we are busy evaluating the damage," he said.
Guiglo, along with Duekoue, 30 kilometres (20 miles) to the northeast, are key crossroads leading east to the political capital Yamassoukro and south to San Pedro, the world`s biggest cocoa exporting port.
Sources said on Wednesday thousands were fleeing clashes on the road between Guiglo -- held by pro-Gbagbo troops -- and the town of Blolequin, some 60 kilometres to the west, seized by Ouattara fighters on Monday.
The UNOCI raised the alarm on Tuesday about the use of heavy weapons by Gbagbo forces against civilians.
Toure reiterated on Thursday that the UNOCI "has the means" to prevent the use of a MI-24 attack helicopter, being repaired in the military wing of Abidjan airport, as well as BM21 multiple rocket launchers in the hands of Gbagbo troops.
"It is a strong warning, and we really mean it and we will do it," he said, adding these were non-conventional weapons whose use was forbidden after World War II.
The 10,000-strong UN mission has been criticised for failing to protect civilians as violence has escalated, but spokesman Toure said it was limited by its peacekeeping mandate -- which West African leaders said on Thursday should be tougher.
A West African regional bloc meeting in the Nigerian capital Abuja issued a statement urging the UN Security Council "to strengthen the mandate of the UN Operation in Cote d`Ivoire (UNOCI), enabling the mission to use all necessary means to protect life and property, and to facilitate the immediate transfer of power to Mr Alassane Ouattara".
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also said it "requests the UN Security Council to adopt more stringent international targeted sanctions against Mr Laurent Gbagbo and his associates".
Gbagbo`s camp has harshly criticised the UN mission and demanded it leave the country.