Spate of child murders horrifies Ivory Coast

Abidjan (AFP) - "The man came out with a machete. I fell down. He started to hack at me." Little Souleymane was in shock, but he survived, unlike many victims of a wave of child murders in Ivory Coast.

The 10-year-old boy, along with many other children and women from Abidjan's poor Yopougon neighbourhood, was fetching water from a well by a lagoon on Sunday when the assailant struck.

The man, nabbed later by security forces, calmly told police that God had told him "to cut off children's heads ... and then I would be made king."

Those gathered at the well watched in horror as the would-be killer went after Souleymane, then another boy, before a soldier from a nearby base saw what was happening and chased the man away.

"I thought he had come to collect water. But he pulled out a machete. He tried to cut me up," said Cedric, 15, with his hand bandaged where he had been cut in fending off a blow.

The incident took place at a lush, green corner by the lagoon that stretches across the south of Ivory Coast's commercial capital, near the Atlantic coast. Despite recent work to supply drinking water to people's homes, taps still run dry for thousands of residents of Yopougon.

As word spread, soldiers from the nearby base quickly fanned out and tracked down the attacker. Once in police custody, he reportedly confessed to at least three murders.

"Fortunately, his machete was not well sharpened," Corporal Habib Tito said after the search. "He was determined to get the two children.

"Had it not been for the presence of one of our men, the smallest boy would be dead," he said.

- 'Unusual phenomenon' -

At least 20 children have been less lucky than Souleymane. In the last two to three months, police have opened 25 unexplained cases of child kidnappings, followed by murders, across the west African country.

First Lady Dominique Ouattara spoke out Tuesday against "horrible and inhuman acts that nothing can justify".

"It isn't right that parents should grow anxious each time their children go out of the front door of their houses," she said in a statement.

Police called the murder toll extremely high, saying it is "a real and unusual phenomenon", which has shocked Ivorians and spread fears that youngsters are victims of ritual sacrifices.

Most bodies have been found "mutilated, with their genital parts missing, or decapitated," the director general of national police, Brindou M'Bia, said last Friday.

"We know the typology of ritual crimes very well," Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko said Wednesday. "People are led to believe that through these crimes, they can gain power or money."

He said 1,500 police and troops were being mobilised "to patrol the areas with a high crime rate".

The man caught after the attack on Souleymane and Cedric seems to illustrate the minister's words. Giving his name as Drissa Coulibaly, the gangling suspect wore a red and white robe, filthy after months of living on the street.

- 'God told me to do this' -

"God told me to do this. God told me to cut off children's heads and bring them to him and then I would be made king," Coulibaby, 38, told AFP from custody.

"I told him that I didn't want to do this but he insisted," he added. His goal was to win his "swords" of royalty, and he said he communicated with God by way of "angels" in the shape of crows.

"Either he is very intelligent (and pretending to be mad) or he is very crazy," one investigator said.

Cedric's mother, market seller Daniele Kone, was present when the attacker was questioned by troops. "He's a very confident man. Not a madman," she said. "He is used to doing this."

Kone told AFP that the suspect "said he had already killed three children" for Internet clients known as "browsers", a charge Coulibaly has since denied.

Browsers is the term used for delinquents who specialise in Internet scams and are widely regarded as behind the child murders, though proof is scanty.

Father Norbert Abekan, a charismatic Abidjan preacher, charged in an article last week that some browsers sought "human sacrifices the better to swindle".

The spate of child killings has prompted some hysterical responses, from warnings posted on Facebook to alarmist text messages. Kidnappings are reported on an almost daily basis.

"Thieves of children grab them by force even from grown-ups or kidnap them around schools, or even go into homes pretending to be visitors or census agents," an SMS sent to an AFP journalist charged.

The impoverished west African nation, which has suffered a decade of political and military crisis, is set to hold a presidential election in October.

The wildest rumours about people disappearing for human sacrifice in rituals, particularly albinos, always circulate in Ivory Coast in electoral years when politicians seek gains at the polls.