MONOKO-ZOHI, Ivory Coast (AP) – Terrorized villagers on Saturday showed the burnt shops and covered corpses from what appeared to be the worst bloodletting of Ivory Coast’s three-month war – a massacre of 120 unarmed civilians by government soldiers, survivors claimed.
Revelations of the mass grave at the central village of Monoko-Zohi came amid reports of heavy fighting in western Ivory Coast. Rebels and locals said Saturday that insurgents had taken another town, Blolekin, while pushing east into the heart of Ivory Coast, said Maj. Frederic Thomazo, part of a 1,000-strong French contingent in the former French colony.
Meanwhile, the government called for a “general mobilization” Saturday, urging all Ivorians between the ages of 20 to 26 “who have decided to go to the front to defend the republic” to sign up with the army.
“In order to finish with these aggressors and free our country, I want to appeal solemnly for a general mobilization of Ivorians beneath the flag,” Defense Minister Bertin Kadet said on state television.
Tensions heightened further over emerging allegations of the massacre at Monoko-Zohi.
Ivory Coast’s army and government strongly denied wrongdoing, insisting Saturday that the dead were not civilians but rebels killed in combat.
However, insurgents denied having their militia in the village of Monoko-Zohi and surviving villagers said the massacre victims were merchants and African guest workers on the region’s lush cocoa and coffee fields.
Villagers said the killing in Monoko-Zohi started when six marked Ivory Coast military trucks arrived Nov. 27 carrying uniformed Ivory Coast soldiers.
Soldiers accused the villagers of feeding rebels and then went house-to-house in the hamlet with a list of names, survivors alleged.
“We heard the shooting – we panicked, and we all ran,” said Kamousse, a merchant who was showing a customer a radio when the soldiers arrived.
“But my brother stayed in the house. He said, ‘Maybe it’s just someone shooting into the air.’ Afterward, they took him behind the house to the latrine and shot him,” Kamousse said.
French troops, who are in Ivory Coast to enforce a now-shattered cease-fire, first reported the mass grave Friday. The Associated Press viewed the scene Saturday.
Monoko-Zohi is about 70 miles northwest of the government-held city of Daloa.
A spokesman for President Laurent Gbagbo invited international human rights experts and doctors to the site. He also said rebels dug a mass grave near the rebel-held central city of Bouake.
“The French army and the special correspondents of Western media know of the existence of a mass grave near Bouake where the bodies of around 100 soldiers and their families were buried after they were taken and executed by the rebels,” spokesman Toussaint Alain said.
A nearly three-month-old rebellion has torn the once prosperous West African nation into three parts. Rebels hold the north and are struggling now to hold the west and move east against a fierce government offensive.
Fierce fighting continued Saturday with the reported rebel capture of the town of Blolekin. The reported advance put the rebels about 60 miles further east of the Liberian border.
Civilians at a village east of Blolekin were said to be fleeing Saturday, escaping a feared showdown there between advancing rebel and government forces.
In government territory Saturday, AP journalists saw pickup trucks full of Ivorian soldiers and white mercenaries – some in black balaclavas to hide their faces – rushing west to the offensive.