Hundreds of civilians suspected of backing Ivory Coast's former president have been swept up in mass arrests and abused by the army, dealing a major setback to efforts to heal divisions after a decade of crisis, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.
Years of political deadlock in Ivory Coast ended in a brief post-election civil war last year, caused by President Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to accept his defeat at the polls.
Gbagbo is now in The Hague charged with crimes against humanity. But a wave of raids on security installations, beginning in August and blamed on his exiled supporters, has revived the spectre of violence and provoked a heavy-handed response from the army.
"At a time when the country remains deeply divided along political and ethnic lines, the military's actions pose a dangerous risk in terms of further alienating Gbagbo supporters," Human Rights Watch said in a report.
The government of President Alassane Ouattara, who won a run-off against Gbagbo, rejected the accusation of mass arrests.
"It was on the basis of a body of evidence and often after denunciation that these people were arrested as part of an investigation," Gnenema Coulibaly, Ivory Coast's minister of human rights, said in a written response to the report.
The investigation by Human Rights Watch documented systematic mass round-ups in restaurants, at bus stops and in private homes of young men from ethnic groups perceived to support Gbagbo.
Detainees were often beaten, robbed, held in overcrowded cells in illegal detention facilities, given little to eat or drink, and deprived of contact with their families, the report said.
Ivory Coast's government has promised to investigate and prosecute anyone responsible for such abuses, but Human Rights Watch said it had made little effort to do so.
"In resorting to tactics that violate the rights of detainees, Ivorian security forces may be fuelling the ethnic and political divisions that are at the root of these attacks," the report said.
One civilian victim of abuse interviewed by the rights group said he had not been involved in the war or the recent violence. He said he did not know what he would do now if asked to take up arms and fight against the army.
"When people have been stripped of everything, when all we are left with is hatred ... we're a long way from reconciliation," he said.
(Reporting By Joe Bavier; editing by Christopher Wilson)