Washington: Ivory Coast's President said he knows nothing about brutal killings committed by his forces the day after his inauguration and defended a senior officer accused of separate atrocities as one of the country's best soldiers.
President Alassane Ouattara, whose election victory in November was followed by a violent, four-month-long standoff with the country's former ruler, told The Associated Press in an interview Friday that all those found to have committed atrocities would be punished, no matter their position.
"I am against impunity," he said.
But a report by Amnesty International released Wednesday accuses Ouattara's Republican Forces of continuing to carry out violence and intimidation against ethnic groups perceived as having supported his predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo. A different report by Human Rights Watch released in June alleges that forces loyal to Ouattara killed up to 149 people believed to be Gbagbo supporters.
The rights group cited a witness who said that a commander loyal to Ouattara, Cherif Ousmane, ordered the execution of 29 detainees. Two others said they saw Ousmane in a car that "disposed of the tortured and executed body of an infamous militia leader."
"This cannot be true," Ouattara said Friday. "Cherif Ousmane is one of the best soldiers."
In fact, he added, soldiers who serve under Ousmane are known for being well-trained, polite and helpful.
"In any case, if we discover that anyone has committed atrocities, that person will be properly judged and sanctions will be taken," the president said. Ouattara added that he believed the report was based on interviews with mercenaries.
But recent violence, including the separate massacre of 47 people on the banks of the Cavally River at the very least raises the question of whether Ouattara has any control over the forces that helped put him in office.
"If President Ouattara is serious about impartial justice, he needs to better ensure that leaders of his security forces don't have blood on their hands," said Matthew Wells, who authored the report by Human Rights Watch.
Ouattara's victory in the West African country's first free and fair election in a decade was perceived as a turning point. But the outgoing president, Gbagbo, refused to leave. Ouattara was only able to take office after he enlisted the help of a rebel army that helped him seize control of the country.
Almost 700,000 people remain in camps for displaced people in the country's remote far west and in refugee camps across the porous jungle border in Liberia and Guinea.
The brutal killings documented by the AP took place deep into Gbagbo land on the river bank on the border with Liberia the day after Ouattara's May 21 inauguration.
Ouattara's forces opened fire with a machine gun, killing 47 refugees who had gathered in the clearing to eat as they made their way back from Liberia, lured by Ouattara's message of reconciliation.
Ouattara's regional commander for western Ivory Coast, Capt. Eddie Mindi, said his soldiers opened fire after being attacked by Gbagbo's mercenaries, and denied most of the dead were civilians. Ouattara said Friday he had never heard of Mindi.
Ouattara, in Washington for a White House meeting with President Barack Obama and the presidents of Benin, Guinea, and Niger, said it would take time for his country to heal after years of violence. He said a report on postelection violence by a national commission of inquiry would be sent to prosecutors by the end of the year.
"I think reconciliation has started," he said.
Ouattara said he has accomplished a lot in the short time he has been in office, including restructuring the security forces and restoring confidence in the economy.
He invited refugees in camps in neighboring Liberia and Guinea to return home, and said he recently urged members of the army in exile to return.
"If there is nothing against them, obviously they will be free," he said. "Especially I told them that their security will be guaranteed."
First Published: Saturday, July 30, 2011, 15:33