Johannesburg: Unknown attackers wielding machetes and guns killed more than 1,000 civilians in the neighbourhood of an Ivory Coast town controlled by forces fighting to install the internationally recognised President, the Catholic charity Caritas said on Saturday.
The UN mission in Ivory Coast said it has a team investigating the alleged mass killings in western Duekoue. It said most of the nearly 1,000 peacekeepers based there were protecting about 15,000 refugees at a Catholic mission in the town at the time.
Spokesman Patrick Nicholson of the Roman Catholic charity Caritas said workers visited Duekoue on Wednesday and found hundreds of bodies of civilians killed by bullets from small-arms fire and hacked to death with machetes.
They estimated more than 1,000 civilians were killed, he said.
The International Federation of the Red Cross put the death toll at about 800, in separate and independent visits Thursday and Friday.
Nicholson, the Caritas spokesman, said the killings occurred over three days in a neighbourhood controlled by fighters loyal to internationally recognised President Alassane Ouattara, though it was not clear who the perpetrators were.
"The massacre took place in the `Carrefour` quarter of town, controlled by pro-Ouattara forces, during clashes on Sunday 27 March to Tuesday 29 March," Nicholson said. "Caritas does not know who was responsible for the killing, but says a proper investigation must take place to establish the truth."
He said the victims included many refugees from fighting elsewhere in the country, where rival forces had been battling over a disputed November election.
Caritas` investigation would indicate that people were killed at close quarters in a small neighbourhood of a town of just 50,000 people as pro-Ouattara fighters began a two-pronged assault that brought them swiftly to Abidjan, the commercial capital and seat of power, within days.
The charges would be a strong blow to the embattled government of Ouattara, who is calling for entrenched incumbent Laurent Gbagbo to cede power after losing November`s poll.
Ouattara`s camp denied forces fighting for it were involved in any atrocities including in western Ivory Coast, but did not refer to the latest allegations. Efforts to reach Ouattara`s spokesman on Saturday were unsuccessful.
Previously, the United Nations put the death toll at 492 from four months of fighting.
UN military spokesman Colonel Chaib Rais said he had "no special report" of mass killings. "There was fighting two days before, on Sunday, and people were killed, but I cannot confirm those numbers."
On Monday, fighters loyal to Ouattara said they seized Duekoue from Gbagbo forces. But Nicholson said interviews with survivors indicated pro-Ouattara forces had control of Carrefour neighbourhood from Sunday.
ICRC spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas said "inter-communal violence" erupted there, apparently on Tuesday.
"We think there is a risk that this kind of event can happen again and hope that by calling today again for protection for the civilian population, we hope that such events can be avoided in the future," Krimitsas said from Geneva.
The area has been a hotbed for conflict between two rival tribes supporting Ouattara and Gbagbo, who refuses to accept his election defeat.
The International Organisation of Migration said on Friday that tens of thousands of refugees have overcrowded Duekoue and that others who had fled the violence there "are now stranded along the route, in fear for their lives”.
It said some of those slaughtered apparently were killed by "mercenaries" from nearby Liberia. Liberian mercenaries have been reported to be fighting for both Gbagbo and Ouattara.