JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — As forces loyal to Ivory Coast's rival presidents fought pitched battles in the country's biggest city, the Red Cross reported an ominous development in the increasingly brutal struggle for control: the massacre of up to 1,000 civilians in a western town.
The killings in Duekoue reportedly came over the course of three days last week after forces loyal to the internationally recognized winner of last fall's presidential election, Alassane Ouattara, took control of the town.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it remained unclear who was responsible for the killings of an estimated 800 to 1,000 people, but a spokeswoman said the scene in Duekoue was horrific.
"We were shocked by the magnitude of the brutality of the event," said Dorothea Krimitsas. "Our colleagues found a huge amount of bodies."
A spokesman for Ouattara said Saturday that his loyalists killed only fighters in the town as they swept down from the north, taking vast swaths of the West African country in their bid to force Laurent Gbagbo to cede power. The capital, Yamoussoukro, fell last week with barely a shot fired.
The Red Cross and the Catholic charity Caritas, which sent teams to the town last week, called for a thorough investigation.
The killings occurred in an area where ethnic and communal tensions over land have been deepened by the recent political crisis, which began when Gbagbo, the incumbent, refused to leave office after the international community declared Ouattara the winner in U.N.-certified elections in November.
World leaders have called on Gbagbo to relinquish power to end the bloodshed. But he has dug in as fighting spread across many districts of Abidjan, the commercial capital. The fiercest battles were near the presidential palace in the Cocody neighborhood, where many believe Gbagbo may be.
Four U.N. peacekeepers were badly hurt in an attack by forces loyal to Gbagbo, the United Nations reported Saturday. They were on a humanitarian mission, escorting civilians, according to the United Nations.
The United Nations condemned a "wave of targeted attacks" against its peacekeepers by Gbagbo loyalists. Throughout the crisis, the Gbagbo camp has accused the U.N. of genocide, illegal killings and partisanship.
When the Red Cross and Caritas sent teams into Duekoue last week, the investigators found streets littered with bodies, mostly killed by small-arms fire or machetes. But neither organization was willing to lay blame for the mass killings.
"It's sketchy information," a Caritas spokesman, Patrick Nicholson, said Saturday in a phone interview.
"Our colleagues are still working in the area, trying to get the facts together, trying to figure out who was involved (in the killings)," Red Cross spokeswoman Krimitsas said.
The cocoa-producing nation was one of the most prosperous countries in the region until a civil war in 2002 saw the country divided in two. Rebels named the New Forces tried to dislodge Gbagbo as president and occupied the northern half of the country, with Gbagbo controlling the south. Now renamed the Republican Forces, they are loyal to Ouattara.
When Gbagbo came to power in 2000, the Sorbonne-educated history professor promised a new style of leadership and an end to personality cults. But now he appears desperate to cling to power.
Gbagbo has made no statements or public appearances since the pro-Ouattara forces invaded Abidjan on Friday; his whereabouts aren't known.