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UN says up to 500 killed in Togo poll violence

Between 400 and 500 people were killed in violence around elections in Togo in April, a United Nations report said on Monday, placing much of the blame on the West African state’s authorities.

A culture of ethnically-tinged repression and military strength built up over four decades of iron-fisted rule by late president Gnassingbe Eyadema lay at the heart of violence that erupted after his February 5 death and continued for three months until the elected succession of his son Faure Gnassingbe, according to a fact-finding mission appointed by the UN human rights commissioner.

”The principal responsibility for the political violence and violations of human rights [lay with] the whole of the repressive state security forces,” the report said, pointing fingers at police, the military police and the various branches of Togo’s

armed forces.

”These groups coordinated with partisans of the ruling party”, the report said, blasting the ”impunity” with which the party in power conducted its coordinated strategy of repression.

An estimated 2 500 soldiers dressed in civilian clothes and armed with knives, machetes and nail-headed clubs helped party militants repress opposition rallies, according to the report.

After Eyadema died while travelling overseas for medical treatment on February 5 his son Faure was rushed in to replace him by military leaders backed by a loyalist legislature, which tweaked the Constitution in his favour.

Overwhelming condemnation by regional bodies including the African Union forced Togo to step back and hold elections, which Faure Gnassingbe won handily despite a united push by the country’s opposition.

Violence and human rights violations were abundant in the intervening months, targeting civilians and nationals from other countries including Mali, according to the mission led by anti-racism czar Doudou Diene, with many people going missing and a wide use of torture and inhumane and degrading treatment.

There has been no official death toll released by Faure Gnassingbe’s government, despite a national investigation ordered by the president soon after he took office.

Unofficial tolls by local human rights watchdogs vary widely depending on their affiliations: a pro-government group confirmed just 58 deaths compared to an opposition-allied organisation that claimed 811 victims.

One opposition leader, Leopold Gnininvi, said the UN’s report came as no surprise.

”The figure is much closer to ours,” said the secretary general of the Democratic Convention of African Peoples.

”We expect the government to recognise [its responsibility] because total impunity cannot be allowed,” he added.

”For 15 years its been the same story. We have enquiries and nothing happens. We want the government to carry out the neccessary procedures,” he said.

Tens of thousands of opposition supporters streamed over tiny Togo’s borders to evade the violence, many of them arriving in Ghana or Benin bearing scars and bruises from clashes with ruling party militants.

Opposition party supporters were not spared condemnation by the fact-finding mission, which also blasted the failure by opposition leaders to ”curtail aggressive acts” by their rank and file members.

Lome remains choked by a ”total political impasse,” the report said, suggesting the need to move towards a policy of national reconciliation founded on truth and justice — something the national inquiry commission was not credible enough to provide.

To right the wrongs of the last several months, there should be ”democratic reform across the armed forces and the reopening of discussions with the opposition to mount a real and representative government of national unity” backed by the United Nations, the report said. – Sapa-AFP

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