Muslims face persecution in Ivory Coast

Strutting through a muddy labyrinth of market stalls, a paramilitary policeman in Ivory Coast's commercial capital heads toward a military truck with his latest catch - five Muslims rounded up after spot checks on their identity papers.

Merchants at Abidjan's sprawling Adjame market say it's a daily ritual, and that they know what happens next: Those rounded up - almost always Muslim immigrants - are driven to a secluded area, stripped to their underwear and robbed, then forced to pay hefty bribes to be released.

In the south of war-divided Ivory Coast, Muslims - from Ivory Coast's north, and from neighboring northern countries - say they are beaten and robbed day in, day out by security forces.

The south is home to the Christian and animist ethnic groups that long have held power in Ivory Coast. The country is the world's largest cocoa-producer and until a 1999 coup, followed by a 2002-2003 civil war, was one of West Africa's most stable and prosperous nations.

The millions of Muslims who migrated to southern Ivory Coast for jobs since its independence from France in 1960 now outnumber indigenous Christian and animist ethnic groups in many areas, triggering resentment and fear.

Since rebels triggered the 9-month civil war with an unsuccessful September 2002 coup attempt, the repression has become worse, they say.

Tensions turned especially deadly in March. Loyalist soldiers killed more than 100 people in a crackdown after an attempted opposition rally in the skyscraper-lined commercial capital, Abidjan.

Most of those killed were Muslims, many in night raids on poor neighborhoods such as this.

Desperate northerners in one district, Abobo Banco, have formed informal neighborhood watch programs - thwarting night raids by security forces.

When uniformed men approached one recent night, "old women came out and began banging on tins," waking the neighborhood, said Souleymane Bamba, 34, a northern Muslim activist in opposition leader Alassane Ouattara's Rally of the Republicans party.

Outnumbered and unsettled, the security forces left without violence.

Ivory Coast has been divided between rebel north and loyalist south since the September 2002 coup attempt. Thousands of U.N. troops man a buffer zone between the two sides. A power-sharing peace accord that ended major fighting has yet to be fully implemented.

Religion, rather than sparking any Muslim-Christian ideological wars, largely is just another difference setting northern and southern ethnic groups apart.

Southern supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo accuse the mostly Muslim northerners and immigrants of secretly backing rebels.

Sweeps targeting the large Muslim communities in Abidjan and other cities in the government-held south make peace all the more elusive.

Idriss Traore, 27, who works as a private security guard, said there are often "roundups" after dark in the predominantly Muslim Abidjan quarter of Adjame.

"They take their money. They beat them" with climbing ropes which every soldier and paramilitary policeman has tied around his waist, he said.

Despite the killings and beatings, most foreigners choose to stay in the country. The alternative is returning to their poorer, arid homelands, where jobs are scarce.

Ivory Coast's human rights minister, Victorine Wodie, said the government is doing all it can to prevent the mistreatment of foreigners, and that officials found guilty of misconduct are sometimes sacked.

"It is not acceptable," Wodie said. "We want people to report to us whenever they hear of misconduct."

But the allegations have been widespread since the late 1990s, and the mistreatment of Ivory Coast's Muslims, coupled with opposition discontent, is a dangerous mix.

"You have a large percentage of the Ivorian and foreigner population who are contributing to the economy, who feel unprotected," said Corinne Dufka, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in New York. "Institutions meant to protect people, like the army, have actually turned into predators."

Before the war, Muslims were already targeted for their support of opposition leader Ouattara, barred since 2000 from standing in elections for allegedly being a foreigner himself.

The controversy has brought waves of violence since 2000, killing hundreds.

In Abobo Banco, Bamba wears an assortment of rings to protect him from bullets and ward off enemies.

In his cramped living room, he keeps a dirty sackcloth undershirt decorated with fetishes made from leather and antelope bones, and splattered with the blood of a rooster.

"We defend ourselves mystically," said Bamba - adding the charms will come in handy if there is more violence next year.