Ivory Coast: Death Squads On The Rise As Civil War Looms

It has already become a routine: as dusk sets in, residents block the crumbling, potholed tarmac roads in their neighbourhood with everything they can find. Wooden tables, sticks, rocks, disused signboards. This is for ""security"", they say.

But still, regularly after midnight, the 4x4s arrive – luxury cars or pick-up trucks carrying armed men. ""Usually they wear hoods, so we can't see their face,"" says one resident, Baba, who does not wish to give his surname. ""They shoot in the air, and everybody runs away. The unlucky ones who don't run fast enough are followed to their houses and taken away.""

The climate of fear is palpable in Abobo, a suburb of Abidjan and opposition stronghold in Ivory Coast, haunted again by the spectre of civil war. It seems nowhere is safe from the alleged ""death squads"".

A tense standoff continued today between president Laurent Gbagbo and the man almost universally acknowledged to have defeated him at the ballot box, Alassane Ouattara, who remains holed up in a UN-guarded hotel. Amid reports of post-election atrocities by Gbagbo's security forces, France urged its nationals to flee the west African nation.

Baba, a car mechanic, says he knows of at least four young men who have been ""arrested"" in Abobo and not seen again. Worse are the unresolved deaths of three of his colleagues, who had been travelling in an old taxi to buy spare parts at a scrapyard on the outskirts of town.

""Their car was sprayed with bullets,"" he recalled. ""This is what others have told me. I didn't see it, but I saw their bodies. They were Muslim, so we buried them the same day."" After two weeks of night-time raids by armed men – sometimes in military uniform, sometimes in unmarked cars – residents of Abidjan have devised their own neighbourhood alarm system.

""I grabbed my biggest cooking pot and started banging it with a wooden spoon,"" explained Amandine (not her real n