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Liberia, Ivory Coast disagree over deadly ambush on UN

The ambush killed seven UN peackeepers, eight civilians, and a soldier.

Liberia has called a deadly ambush Friday on a village across the border in Cote d’Ivoire an “act of terrorism” and has ordered the immediate closure of the border. But the Liberian government has said it cannot confirm whether the attackers came from within its territory, while the Ivorian government firmly asserts they did.

The ambush killed seven UN peackeepers, eight civilians, and a soldier. 

Cote d’Ivoire’s Minister of Defense Paul Koffi Koffi has put forth the idea of sending troops into Liberia to clear militants who are are carrying out cross-border attacks. 

“These people came from the other side of the border. They are militias and mercenaries,” Koffi Koffi said, according to Reuters. “We must go to the other side of the border to establish a security zone. We will clean up and secure the zone. This will be done, of course, with the agreement of the two countries.”

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But in Liberia, Minister of Foreign Affairs Augustine Ngafuan said security agencies were still investigating the incident. “There is no confirmation as to the nationality of those who are perpetrating these attacks,” he said. “As to where they come from the security outlets are still trying to establish that.”

In addition to the closure of the borders, the Liberian government has called for the deployment of the Armed Forces of Liberia on the border and a beefing up of border security forces. The government has also pledged to suspend artisanal gold mining along the border that reportedly funds attacks and undertake surveillance of Ivorian refugee camps with plans to possibly relocate them away from the border. 

The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) that has a 8,000-man peacekeeping force in the small West African nation, also condemned the attack in a statement and said were investigating the details of the incident with the Ivory Coast mission (ONUCI). 

The ambush has been the most recent in a series of attacks on Ivorian villages since last year’s post election crisis that officially ended with the April 10, 2011 capture of former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo. Mr. Gbagbo had refused to step down when opposition candidate Alassane Outtara won a November 2010 presidential runoff election that was deemed free and fair by the international community.

An estimated 3,000 people were killed during the fighting between forces loyal to Gbagbo and Mr. Ouattara. Hundreds of Liberian mercenary fighters crossed the border during the conflict and fought alongside both pro-Gbagbo and Ouattara forces.  

The most recent attack came just days after a Human Rights Watch Report criticized the government for failing to detain, prosecute, and extradite those who fled to Liberia after committing some of the worst atrocities during Ivory Coast’s post-election crisis.

“For well over a year, the Liberian government has had its head in the sand in responding to the flood of war criminals who crossed into the country at the end of the Ivorian crisis,” stated Matt Wells, West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, in the report. “Rather than uphold its responsibility to prosecute or extradite those involved in international crimes, Liberian authorities have stood by as many of these same people recruit child soldiers and carry out deadly cross-border attacks.”

Liberia’s Minister of Information Lewis Browne described the claim as “outlandish” during a press conference held the day after the report was released.

Since last July, Liberian mercenaries and Ivorian fighters recruited by loyalists to Gbagbo have engaged in cross-border raids in Western Cote d’Ivoire, according the HRW report. The rights group claims that the majority of those killed in the attacks have been civilians from ethnic groups who largely support Ouattara.  

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The report also says training camps are operating in the Liberian county of Grand Gedeh and recruiting children to fight in these attacks, but noted “the scale of child recruitment was unclear.”

The United Nations Panel of Experts on Liberia noted the presence of mercenaries in a December 2011 report and the UN Secretary-General’s special report of April 2012 said that potential cross-border instability continues to be of concern.

Liberia and Côte D’Ivoire share a porous 435-mile frontier of thick jungle that is difficult to patrol. In early May, Liberian and Ivorian officials met to discuss the attacks and proposed carrying out a joint security operation along the border, but the details and timeline were not confirmed. The Liberian government has said that it is involved in ongoing discussions with the Ivorian government and the two UN missions about how best to address the issue.