Armed men ambushed and killed seven U.N. peacekeepers trying to protect villagers Friday in Ivory Coast, and more than 40 of their colleagues who stayed to guard residents from more attacks remain in danger, the United Nations said.
Hundreds of villagers were fleeing the area near the Liberian border, and U.N. officials said others may have been killed or injured. Authorities have been unable to confirm any additional casualties because of the remoteness of the area near the Liberian border.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack "in the strongest possible terms," saying he was "saddened and outraged" about the deaths of the peacekeepers, all from Niger. He urged the government of Ivory Coast to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.
Ivory Coast's deputy defense minister Paul Koffi Koffi said government forces, along with Liberian and U.N. forces, will launch an operation next Friday to find those responsible. He said they were "militia men or mercenaries." He said government forces could not respond sooner because it would take time to gather equipment and prepare them.
An Ivorian Cabinet official who was briefed on the matter said President Alasanne Ouattara had requested helicopter gunships from the U.N. and expected them to arrive by Monday.
Bert Koenders, the U.N. envoy to the West African nation, said the peacekeepers were part of a patrol south of the town of Tai, an area the U.N. mission recently reinforced because of threats of attacks against civilians. The ambush involved a large group of armed men, a U.N. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Their colleagues are still in danger," Ban told reporters. "Even tonight, after the attack, more than 40 peacekeepers remain with the villagers in this remote region to protect them from this armed group."
"We are moving in reinforcements as soon as we have daylight," said Kieran Dwyer, the spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping department.
The mayor of Tai, Desire Gnonkonte, told AP that hundreds of villagers were fleeing the area.
Once a stable nation, Ivory Coast was split into a rebel-controlled north and government-controlled south after an attempted coup sparked civil war in 2002. A peace deal in March 2007 brought key rebel leaders into the administration.
But the country headed to the brink of civil war after a presidential runoff in early 2011 when then-president Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat after losing to Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the election. Gbagbo was arrested with the help of U.N. and French forces in April 2011, and is now facing charges of war crimes at The Hague.
Following Gbagbo's arrest, many of the militiamen who fought for him fled across the border into Liberia's forests or its refugee camps.
Western Ivory Coast has remained particularly unstable, and Human Rights Watch said earlier this week that armed groups in Liberia who supported Gbagbo have killed at least 40 civilians in cross-border raids into Ivory Coast since July. The deaths have all been near Tai, Human Rights Watch said.