Masked gunmen with rocket launchers are blocking access to what officials believe may be a mass grave site in Ivory Coast, the United Nations said as concerns grow that the West African nation could return to conflict.
The UN reported that heavily armed forces allied with Laurent Gbagbo and joined by masked men were preventing people from getting to the village of N'Dotre, where the global body said "allegations point to the existence of a mass grave".
The UN did not elaborate on the possible victims, though it has expressed concerns about hundreds of arrests and dozens of cases of torture and disappearance during the political turmoil which has engulfed the nation since the presidential run-off vote was held nearly a month ago.
"As the violence goes on the number of dead, wounded and missing persons is increasing rapidly," UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.
Gbagbo has refused to step down from the presidency despite international calls from the UN, US, former coloniser France, the European Union and the African Union. The international community recognises Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the run-off vote, though Gbagbo maintains control of the national military.
Alain Toussaint, an adviser for Gbagbo, has said he does not believe soldiers or people close to Gbagbo would carry out the acts of violence that have been reported.
At least 173 deaths have already been confirmed in violence over the vote, and the UN is warning there could be untold more since it has been unable to investigate all the allegations.
Even the top UN envoy in the country was stopped at gunpoint while trying to look into reports of human rights abuses, the UN deputy human rights commissioner in Geneva said yesterday.
"Many of the abducted remain missing and the security forces are refusing to reveal their whereabouts," Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "Several witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch had come across bodies with bullet wounds of those arrested or abducted, leading to strong fears of extrajudicial executions."
The US State Department has ordered most of its personnel to leave because of the deteriorating security situation and growing anti-Western sentiment, and France is also urging its citizens to leave.