An international rights group accused Ivory Coast on Friday of recruiting former child soldiers and other fighters from neighboring Liberia, luring them with offers of cash, food and clothing in anticipation of renewed civil war battles here.
Mounting tensions in Ivory Coast have led to fears of a new outbreak of violence as early as Sunday, when presidential elections had been scheduled. President Laurent Gbagbo canceled the vote last month.
Both rebels who control the north and opposition leaders agreed with Gbagbo that the nation was not ready for a vote, but they reject Gbagbo's claim the constitution allows him to remain in power after Sunday and have called for weekend demonstrations.
Gbagbo has banned the demonstrations, setting the stage for possible confrontations.
Friday, New York-based Human Rights Watch said military officers from Ivory Coast are seeking children in its war-ruined western neighbor to fight alongside government forces in case of any renewed fighting with rebels who have held the north since 2003.
"The Ivorian government is bolstering its military manpower by recruiting children who fought in Liberia's brutal civil war," Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the group's Africa division, said in a statement.
Ivory Coast government officials weren't immediately reachable for comment.
The rights group said it had interviewed 19 ex-combatants from Liberia's brutal 1989-2003 civil war, including three children, who reported contacts with recruiters from Ivory Coast as well as former Liberian commanders.
The Liberian ex-combatants were offered hundreds of dollars (euros) as well as rice and clothing to cross into Ivory Coast. Interviewees, who weren't named, said they had been taken to government-allied militia bases in Ivory Coast's government-held west.
The rights group said one ex-Liberian fighter reported hearing a briefing on an Ivory Coast military mission. Details weren't released.
Ivory Coast's civil war sparked in 2003 after a failed coup attempt. Widespread fighting largely ended in early 2004 with a French-brokered peace deal, but few of the pact's tenets have since been put into place. Fighters are armed and the country remains divided, reports the AP. I.L.