So much for avoiding a bloodbath in West Africa’s war-torn Ivory Coast.

It is now clear at least 800 people have been massacred in the small cocoa-growing town of Dekoue — near the Liberian border — which fell to Alassane Ouattara’s republican forces last week.

What’s not yet clear is who did the killing, but it appears that Laurent Gbagbo’s pro-government soldiers began the bloodbath before Ouattara’s rebels set about taking revenge.

As the Red Cross goes about the grisly business of picking hundreds of bodies off the streets and out of the bushes, the UN’s mission in Cote d’Ivoire has blamed Ouattara’s forces for at least 200 of the deaths, which fit into a long history of ethnic violence between the Guere and Dioula people.

And that’s a major embarrassment for the West, which has thrown its support behind the former World Bank official, who was elected president last November.

Ten days ago, Ouattara was lauded by Barack Obama as the leader the Ivory Coast deserved — without any intended irony.

The killings also mark a failure for the UN, which has almost 10,000 soldiers in the Ivory Coast protecting civilians, and that has been playing the difficult role of peacekeeper in the country since 2004. The UN failed to prevent similar (but smaller) ethnic killings in Dekoue in 2005.

Ouattara’s new government — which now claims to control of most of the country and 90% of the commercial capital, Abidjan — has denied any responsibility for the latest massacre and promised to “bring all perpetrators of abuses against civilians to justice in national and international courts”.

Meanwhile, fighting is still raging in Abidjan around the presidential palace, where Laurent Gbagbo’s elite forces are holed up, and the French government is contemplating evacuating 12,000 French citizens from the country. French forces have also taken control of the airport.

The UN High Commission for Refugees has warned that 250,000 people are expected to flee across the border into neighbouring Liberia, creating a further humanitarian crisis.

Peter Fray

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