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Police help loot opposition homes in Ivory Coast

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast - Gangs of young people, actively aided by uniformed police, ransacked at least 10 houses in Abidjan belonging to officials allied with the internationally recognized president of Ivory Coast, as heavy fighting broke out in the country's west.

Security forces loyal to incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power more than three months after the United Nations says he lost an election, have turned to increasingly criminal behavior in the past week, killing six unarmed women protesters in the street on Thursday.

A witness reported having seen a pickup truck belonging to the elite paramilitary police force CECOS leaving the house belonging to Alassane Ouattara's finance minister on Saturday. The CECOS truck was loaded down with a refrigerator, he said, and it later returned to the house, owned by Charles Koffi Diby, leaving a second time with a large safe.

Dozens of teenagers smashed the doors and windows of the house and later left wearing suits and robes, carrying dishes and other valuables, said the witness, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

Hundreds of miles (kilometers) away in the region bordering Liberia, heavy fighting broke out between pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara forces. On the Liberian side of the frontier, Saah Nyuma, the deputy director of the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission, said he heard the sounds of explosions coming from Ivory Coast. At least one mortar shell fell on the Liberian side. A fighter allied with Ouattara and who was reached by telephone and who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said the fighting was occurring in the border village of Toulepleu.

Top Ouattara adviser Amadou Coulibaly said that police recruit youth to participate in the lootings, which began Thursday.

"They're trying to install an atmosphere of terror," he said, "but you can't do more than what they've already done, firing on unarmed women. They're getting desperate."

Thursday's killings, which were documented in a video obtained by The Associated Press, were quickly followed by a deluge of international reproach, with governments around the world expressing their disgust.

Britain's Foreign Office Minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, called again on Gbagbo to step down. He said he was "deeply concerned" about the deteriorating security situation in Ivory Coast and was "appalled" to hear that women were killed during a peaceful demonstration.

"This is a deplorable and cowardly act against unarmed protesters calling for the results of the Presidential elections to be respected," he said in a statement Sunday. "Gbagbo's continuing refusal to cede power ignores the will of the Ivorian people, challenges African democracy, and risks further violence and instability."

At least 10 houses have been looted, according to an Associated Press tally made from witness reports, interviews with homeowners and reports from Ouattara's government. The houses belong to ministers and mayors in Ouattara's RDR party, but also to their family members and businessmen perceived as being pro-Ouattara.

Ouattara is the internationally backed and U.N.-recognized winner of Ivory Coast's presidential elections.

Ouattara women's issues adviser Ami Toungara had her house looted and burned on Friday. She said that the police are targeting people they know to be at the Golf Hotel and unable to protect their houses.

Ouattara and his government have been confined to the Golf Hotel since early December by elite security forces loyal to Gbagbo.

Toungara said that after the valuables were taken from her house, the looters made off with tanks of cooking gas and bags of rice.

"They stole a back massager and we later found it in the garden," she said.

Analysts fear that Ivory Coast's crisis will spill over into full-blown civil war, and the U.N. has warned that the escalating violence could be leading in that direction.

Nearly 400 people have been killed since the Nov. 28 election, according to a U.N. and an AP tally of bodies. The U.N. refugee body says more than 200,000 people have fled fighting in Abidjan in the last week and more than 70,000 have crossed the border into Liberia to avoid fighting in the country's west.

Charles Ble Goude, a minister in Gbagbo's government who is also the leader of the violent youth organization Young Patriots called on "real" Ivorians to protect their neighborhoods, block all U.N. vehicles and "denounce" foreigners last week.

Since then, hundreds of barricades run by neighborhood youth sprung across Abidjan, Ivory Coast's biggest city. Some of the barricades are run by a mix of police and youth and an Associated Press reporter saw at least one adolescent at a roadblock armed with an AK-47 rifle.

The barricades provide essential protection for the looting, a witness explained.

"First they block off the area completely, then the police shoot in the air to clear pedestrians out," said the witness who didn't want to be identified. "Then the police send in the kids to break in ... when they're ready they bring trucks to take away all the furniture and appliances," he said.

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