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More Than 1,000 Shot and Hacked to Death in Ivory Coast Town

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The Roman Catholic charity Caritas says more than 1,000 people were massacred in a western Ivory Coast town.

The U.N. mission in Ivory Coast says it has nearly 1,000 peacekeepers in Duekoue but no information of mass killings.

Spokesman Patrick Nicholson told The Associated Press that Caritas workers visited the town of Duekoue on Wednesday. He says one neighborhood was filled with bodies of victims killed by gunshots and hacked to death with machetes.

He says the workers "estimate over 1,000 killed."

The International Federation of the Red Cross said more than 800 were killed there in "intercommunal violence," apparently Tuesday. The town had been seized a day earlier by rebels moving south in a bid to oust the entrenched incumbent leader.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — More than 800 people have been massacred in a western Ivory Coast town where hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers are based, the International Committee of the Red Cross said Saturday, but the U.N. military spokesman said he has no information about mass killings there.

The government of internationally recognized President Alassane Ouattara meanwhile denied its forces were involved in any atrocities including in western Ivory Coast, without referring to the latest allegations. Previously, the United Nations put the toll at 492 from four months of fighting to install rival leaders following disputed November elections.

Col. Chaib Rais told The Associated Press that nearly 1,000 peacekeepers at Duekoue, the town where the killings allegedly occurred, "are protecting the Catholic Church with more than 10,000 (refugees) inside and we have military camps in the area."

But he said "I have no special report of (mass killings)."

Rais said there was fighting in and around the town on Sunday and Monday, between forces loyal to the rival leaders.

On Monday, fighters loyal to Ouattara took Duekoue.

ICRC spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas said "communal violence" erupted there, apparently on Tuesday.

International and Ivorian Red Cross teams visited Duekoue Friday and saw a "huge number of bodies," estimated at more than 800, she said.

"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 told The Associated Press by phone from Geneva.

The area has been a hotbed for conflict between two tribes that support rival leaders vying for power in Ivory Coast, the democratically elected Ouattara and incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to accept his defeat at November elections held after numerous postponements.

The International Organization of Migration said Friday that tens of thousands of refugees have overcrowded Duekoue and that others who had fled the violence in Duekoue "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.

The Roman Catholic bishop for the area, the Right Rev. Gaspard Beby Gneba of Man, said he was called by a priest from Guigloo, a town near Duekoue that also is sheltering refugees. He said the priest told him refugees were dying and that they were burying two people Saturday.

Gneba said tensions in the area are a mixture of political, ethnic and land rivalry, aggravated by the influx of tens of thousands of new Ivorian refugees and long-established refugees from neighboring Liberia. In January, an unknown number of people were killed in violence in which some homes were torched and others looted, he said.

Gneba said more than 30,000 refugees had flooded the town of about 50,000 since January. Many are being sheltered at the Salesian priests' Mission of St. Theresa of the Baby Jesus.

"There's a traumatic humanitarian situation there," Gneba said. "They need everything: food, medicine, water, sanitation. People have lost everything, houses, clothes, they do not even have a mat to sleep on."

Rais, the U.N. colonel, said there are nearly 400 peacekeepers based at Guigloo who were doing what they could to help with water and food.

Ouattara's government, in a general statement Saturday responding to allegations of abuses by Amnesty International, blamed any killings on Gbagbo forces acting as they retreated.

Ouattara had long tried to distance himself from the northern-based fighters taking up his cause who fought in a brief civil war almost a decade ago that left the country split in two. Those fighters were accused of many atrocities at the time.

But Ouattara's repeated calls for an international military intervention to force out Gbagbo and end the violence have gone unheeded and he appeared to change tack as the fighters, known as the "Republican Forces," this week began a swift advance on Abidjan.

"The government firmly rejects these accusations and denies all implication of the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast in any possible violations," a government statement said Saturday.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement Saturday saying it had documented abuses, with the vast majority perpetrated by forces loyal to Gbagbo against real or perceived Ouattara supporters, as well as against West African immigrants and Muslims.

"The documented abuses include targeted killings, enforced disappearances, politically motivated rapes, and unlawful use of lethal force against unarmed demonstrators," the statement said. "These abuses, committed over a four-month period by security forces under the control of Gbagbo and militias loyal to him, may rise to the level of crimes against humanity."

It was not immediately possible to reach Gbagbo or his ministers.

But the New York-based organization said atrocities committed by pro-Ouattara forces also could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, including three detainees burned alive and four whose throats were slit, all in Abidjan.

"Human Rights Watch has also received credible reports of abuses committed when Ouattara's forces took control of several towns in western (Ivory Coast)," it said.

In one village near Abidjan, the statement said, at least nine civilians were killed "in an apparent case of collective punishment against alleged civilian supporters of Gbagbo."

It added, "The killing of civilians by pro-Ouattara forces, at times with apparent ethnic or political motivation, also risks becoming a crime against humanity should it become widespread or systematic."

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