Masked gunmen with rocket launchers are blocking access to what officials believe may be a mass grave in Ivory Coast, the United Nations said Friday.


UN forces drive by an election billboard for Laurent Gbagbo on Thursday in Abidjan. West Africa's central bank cut off Gbagbo's access to state funds yesterday in a move to force the incumbent president to concede defeat in recent elections and leave office. ((Sunday Alamba/Associated Press))

Concerns are growing that the West African nation that suffered a 2002-03 civil war could return to conflict.

The UN reported that heavily armed forces allied with Laurent Gbagbo and joined by masked men, were preventing people from getting to the village of N'Dotre, where the global body said "allegations point to the existence of a mass grave."

The UN did not elaborate on the possible victims, though it has expressed concerns about hundreds of arrests, and dozens of cases of torture and disappearance during the political turmoil since the presidential run-off vote was held nearly a month ago.

"As the violence goes on, the number of dead, wounded and missing persons is increasing rapidly," UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said late Thursday.

Gbagbo has refused to step down from the presidency despite international calls for his ouster from the UN, U.S., former colonizer France, the European Union and the African Union. The international community recognizes Alassane Ouattara as the winner, though Gbagbo maintains control of the national military.

Alain Toussaint, an adviser for Gbagbo, has said that he didn't believe soldiers or people close to Gbagbo would carry out the acts of violence that have been reported.

At least 173 deaths already have been confirmed in violence over the vote, and the UN is warning there could be untold more since it has been unable to investigate all the allegations. Even the top UN envoy in the country was stopped at gunpoint while trying to look into reports of human rights abuses, the UN deputy human rights commissioner in Geneva said Thursday.

"Many of the abducted remain missing, and the security forces are refusing to reveal their whereabouts," Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "Several witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch had come across bodies with bullet wounds of those arrested or abducted, leading to strong fears of extrajudicial executions."

The U.S. State Department has ordered most of its personnel to leave because of the deteriorating security situation and growing anti-Western sentiment, and former colonizer France is also urging its citizens to leave.

A youth leader accused of inciting a pro-Gbagbo group that has led violent attacks against foreigners in the past has called for a demonstration Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Ouattara is trying to assert his control over state institutions in a bid to cement his rule. State television that had been controlled by Gbagbo was yanked from the air in most cities outside Abidjan late Thursday, and Gbagbo's access to state funds also has been blocked.

Ouattara's allies hope the move by the West African economic and monetary union late Thursday will set the stage for mass defections if incumbent Gbagbo cannot pay civil servants and soldiers in the military that he still controls.