ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast’s army took back control of a village on its southwestern border with Liberia on Friday after gunmen seized it in an attack that killed 13 people, the country’s defense minister said.
Around 40 men attacked and looted the village of Fetai, located on the Cavally River separating Ivory Coast and Liberia, early on Thursday, Paul Koffi Koffi told journalists in the commercial capital Abidjan.
The Ivorian military launched a counter-attack early on Friday to drive them out.
“There was an ambush that killed three (soldiers)... Ten were killed among the civilian population. We’re carrying out clean-up operations in the forest and we’ve gone all the way to the Cavally River ... The situation is under control,” he said.
Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa producer, is recovering from a decade-long political crisis that culminated in a brief 2011 civil war after former president Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept his election defeat to Alassane Ouattara.
Gunmen from Liberia have staged several assaults on towns near the border in recent years that the government and United Nations have blamed on Liberian mercenaries and Gbagbo allies. Fetai was last attacked in February.
“This isn’t an attack like the other times ... These are the youth from the region who are refugees. They are bandits,” Koffi Koffi said, rejecting the idea that the raid was politically motivated.
However, local residents said the fighters were armed with heavy weapons and the parliamentarian for the area said they had launched their raid from across the border in Liberia.
“These were Ivorian militia based in Liberia,” MP Yaya Coulibaly told Reuters by telephone from Grabo, a town 10 km (6 miles) from Fetai.
“Some of the villagers were taken hostage by them. They said their accents were Ivorian. A few of them even recognized the faces of some of the attackers,” he said.
Coulibaly said he knew of seven villagers who had been killed in the attack in addition to the three soldiers. None of the raiders were killed in the army’s counter-attack, he said, adding that some 2,500 people had fled to Grabo from outlying villages for safety.
Koffi Koffi estimated that around 500 people had been displaced by the clashes.
Gbagbo is currently awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for suspected crimes against humanity during the 2011 war, in which around 3,000 people died.
Some 220,000 Ivorians fled into Liberia during the post-election conflict and around 46,000 - among them former pro-Gbagbo militia fighters - remain there, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency.
A U.N. panel of experts charged with monitoring Ivory Coast’s arms embargo wrote in a report last month that, despite a general improvement in security in the country, Liberia-based fighters remained a threat.
“The structure and military capacity (in terms of combatants, weapons and related materiel) of the mercenaries in Liberia and the Ivorian militia remain highly operational,” the report said.
The United Nations is gradually reducing its peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast as it faces new crises in the region, notably in Mali and Central African Republic.
Ivory Coast asked the United Nations to consider deploying drones along its border with Liberia to offset the planned peacekeeper draw-down. However their deployment has been put on hold thanks to improved security, the world body said.
Reporting by Ange Aboa; Additional reporting and writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Gareth Jones