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UN evacuates 200 Ivory Coast staff after attacks

/ Source: The Associated Press

The United Nations mission in Ivory Coast began evacuating some 200 employees after frequent attacks on its headquarters by forces loyal to the country's strongman.

A U.N. employee said they were told Sunday that they were leaving. They were taken by helicopter from the U.N. base downtown to the airport. Another helicopter will take them to the northern city of Bouake.

The person asked not to be named because employees are not authorized to speak to the press.

The evacuation order is for all "essential employees." Nonessential employees were already evacuated several months ago. The U.N.'s military personnel is still in Ivory Coast.

The French military force in Ivory Coast secured the airport early Saturday.

Hundreds killed
The move came as the U.N. and the government it supports in Ivory Coast traded accusations over the killings of hundreds of civilians in a western town last week.

But a minister in the government of internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara late Saturday accused U.N. peacekeepers of failing to protect civilians in Duekoue from vengeful fighters supporting the entrenched incumbent leader.

The U.N. accused traditional hunters fighting in a force supporting Ouattara of "extra-judicial executions" of more than 330 people last week in Duekoue.

Guillaume Ngeta, joint chief for human rights of the U.N. mission, also on Saturday night blamed the killings of about 100 more civilians there on fighters loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, Ivory Coast's leader since 2000 who refuses to accept his defeat in November elections.

Such allegations are a strong blow to the stature of the democratically elected Ouattara and could not come at a worse time, as fighters claiming loyalty to him prepared Sunday for a final push on Gbagbo's strongholds in Abidjan.

Aid organizations say atrocities that could qualify as war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed by both sides as fighters for the two rivals prepare for a battle in Abidjan, the commercial capital and seat of power.

Roman Catholic charity Caritas said Saturday more than 1,000 people were killed over three days last week in one Duekoue neighborhood controlled by forces fighting to install Ouattara. Caritas spokesman Patrick Nicholson said they did not know who did the killing.

The International Federation of the Red Cross put the death toll at more than 800, and said it appeared to be "inter-communal violence."

Ouattara's government blamed retreating Gbagbo forces, and accused them of killing about 100 people there before they retreated.

Peacekeepers blamed
Justice Minister Jeannot Ahoussou-Kouadio rebuffed the U.N.'s allegations in a statement late Saturday, accusing the nearly 1,000 peacekeepers based in Duekoue of abandoning the town and leaving civilians at the mercy of vengeful Gbagbo fighters.

"The government notes that the (U.N. mission) retreated from the town of Duekoue before its liberation by the Republican Forces at the same time that the town was prey to looting and exactions of every type being committed by the militia and mercenaries of Mr. Laurent Gbagbo," the statement said.

The U.N. mission said most of its soldiers were deployed around a Catholic mission, protecting some 15,000 people who had sought refuge there.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Ouattara to discuss the issue late Saturday. Ouattara repeated his camp's denials, said he had launched an investigation and would welcome an international inquiry into the killings, according to a U.N. statement.