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Violence has been spreading across Cote d’Ivoire since disputed presidential elections in November, with rapes and other violations on the increase, according to the UN.

Over 20 women have been raped in the nation’s volatile west in the past week, said United Nations human rights chief Simon Munzu. “We regret that as a result of the ethnic clashes that we witnessed in Duekoue in particular recently, a number of rape cases have come to our attention,” the Associated Press quoted Munzu as saying.

Duekoue was the scene of recent clashes between ethnic groups, and between government forces and New Forces rebels, who oppose Gbagbo and control the northern half of the country. The city is near the soft dividing line between the north and the government-held area to the south. Although relative calm was restored in the city, more than 9,000 people are still sheltered in a Catholic mission there, according to a source at the mission, and hundreds more have sought refuge at other church facilities.

“Many neighborhoods were abandoned and [thieves] took the opportunity to loot and burn the houses,” said the source, who spoke by telephone and asked not to be named. “At least 300 houses were burned and destroyed and another 30,000 people have fled across the border to Liberia,” according to the UN refugee agency.

Human rights have deteriorated considerably since the political impasse began after the November 29 presidential election. The UN says at least 260 people have died in the violence and this resembles what the whole world noticed in Zimbabwe in June 2008.

The most recent effort to mediate an end to the crisis has been unsuccessful. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga traveled to the commercial capital, Abidjan, to meet with incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo to convince him to stand down but Gbagbo accused the Kenyan official of siding with his rival, Alassane Ouattara.

Gbagbo has refused to accept his defeat in the poll that both domestic poll reports and the international community say Ouattara won. Ouattara has been holed up at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan since shortly after the election, under the protection of UN troops and UN forces have come under attack by forces loyal to Gbagbo. On Wednesday, the UN Security Council voted to boost its nearly 10,000-strong force by another 2,000. The regional bloc Ecowas has threatened to use force to dislodge Gbagbo.

“We remain gravely concerned about the possibility of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing in Côte Click to learn more...d’Ivoire,” the UN secretary-general’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Francis Deng, told reporters shortly after the Security Council vote. “We believe that urgent steps should be taken, in line with the ‘responsibility to protect,’ to avert the risk of genocide and ensure the protection of all those at risk of mass atrocities.”

Munzu said security forces loyal to Gbagbo had used sexual torture techniques on at least one Ouattara supporter. This followed a raid on Ouattara’s party headquarters two weeks ago in which 63 people were arrested.

“This young man was sodomized by eight members of the Republican Guard who wanted to extract information about his fellow [political party] members,” the Associated press quoted him as saying.

Gbagbo’s spokesman has previously denied allegations that security forces had abducted and tortured opponents.

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