In Ivory Coast's lush heart, ethnic hatred feeds on political turmoil

TRAHE, Ivory Coast - The Roman Catholic chapel on the edge of this desolate village is one of the few buildings spared by a blaze lit when lingering ethnic hatred turned to violence in southwestern Ivory Coast.

Inside, torn religious and children's books are scattered across the floor. A message scrawled on an overturned blackboard reads ''Lord, forgive us for our sins'' in the More language of the migrant workers from Burkina Faso who prayed here.

In recent weeks, at least 12 people - and possibly many more - have been killed in ethnic battles in Trahe and the neighboring village of Heke 19, both tucked along the edge of a sprawling rubber plantation in southwestern Ivory Coast. Several thousand residents fled.

A starving kitten was the only sign of life during a recent visit to Trahe, where more than 1,000 houses were burned down. In Heke 19, chickens and pigs rooted through pots left on cooking fires, while uncollected laundry still hung on washing lines.

Ethnic and political tensions are on the rise in this West African country, which until recently had a reputation for peacefulness and prosperity in a region convulsed by civil wars and ethnic conflicts.

Tribal clashes were once rare in Ivory Coast, whose population of 20 million includes more than 100 native language groups and a large minority of immigrants from neighboring states like Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana.

In the late 1990s, former President Henri Konan Bedie began harnessing growing regional and ethnic enmities, as well as a pervasive anti-foreigner sentiment among southern Ivorians, to bolster his hold on power.

Bedie was ousted last December in the country's first coup. His military successor, Gen. Robert Guei, who initially promised national reconciliation, has been accused of using similar divide-and-rule tactics to influence ethnic groups, political parties and even his own military, which has mutinied twice since the coup over pay and perks.

Guei's regime said it repelled an assassination attempt Monday by insurgents at the leader's residence in Abidjan. At least two of Guei's bodyguards were killed in the gunfire and 20 others were arrested, the officials said.

The origins of the conflict in Trahe and Heke 19 are convoluted, and do not appear linked to the military unrest.

Some residents see its roots in a community celebration in January where one group snubbed another. Others accuse their enemies of jockeying for more fertile rubber, cocoa and coffee-growing land.

But behind it is a growing hostility among southern indigenous tribes against the flood of migrants from other parts of Ivory Coast and neighboring countries.

And the ethnic enmity feeds on the country's growing political turmoil.

The military regime has warned it may prevent a popular opposition leader, Alassane Dramane Ouattara, from running in presidential elections next month, saying one of his parents was from Burkina Faso. Ouattara insists both were Ivorian.

Migrants and Ouattara's Ivorian supporters, most of them northerners, have warned of unrest if he is not allowed to run. They accuse southerners of systematic discrimination, with many complaining they cannot obtain identity cards or voting rights, even generations after their families immigrated to Ivory Coast.

Trahe's indigenous Kroumen minority, who have fled the fighting, said they had been encouraged by government officials to evict migrants from the village in early September.

Government officials have declined to comment on the allegations and ordered village leaders not to talk to journalists.

The rival Baoule group from central Ivory Coast and Mossi from Burkina Faso - some of whom had been driven away from another village a year earlier - refused the Kroumen's order to leave. Both sides took up arms.

''We cannot live together with them any more. They will die or we will die first,'' said Michel Hie Kapet, the chief of 150 Kroumen who fled Trahe.

After most Trahe residents fled, unidentified fighters returned to torch the homes they left behind. Both sides blame the other for the devastation.

In Heke 19, similar fighting led to the deaths of several children from Burkina Faso whose bodies were dumped down a well, said Abdoulaye Yao, 31, a relative of one of the victims.

Most Burkinabes fled to the city of San Pedro, some 45 miles to the east, but Yao said he preferred to stay close by.

''San Pedro is too far away and I want to go back when it is safe to bury my family,'' he said.


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