KORHOGO, Ivory Coast (AP) – One man, Siaka, survived inside the airless, sweltering shipping container by gasping for air through a small hole. Dozens of others, packed too tightly to move or even breathe, suffocated and died, he said, backing accounts of atrocities during factional fighting in Ivory Coast’s rebel-held north.

The account from Siaka and another survivor, along with reports of numerous missing men, support U.N. and Amnesty International findings on three newly discovered mass graves in rebel territory. The graves hold a total of 99 bodies, some of whom suffocated, the United Nations says.

The allegations are the most serious charges of rights abuses lodged against Ivory Coast’s rebels since they took control of the north in a nine-month civil war, which officially ended in July 2003.

“I thought I was going to die,” said Amadou, a 25-year-old herdsman, speaking on condition he not be identified further. Surviving was “a miracle. It’s due to God.”

When the 40-foot-long by 9-foot-high container was opened, 75 bodies were pulled out, Amadou, told The Associated Press on Friday.

The U.N. Security Council called the killings a massacre.

“We were in difficult conditions: no water, no food, no air. Sometimes they pumped tear gas into the container,” said Siaka, who also refused to allow his full name to be used for fear of reprisal.

The killings occurred during a flare-up of factional fighting in June, when the main rebel leader, Guillaume Soro, put down an uprising by followers of dissident Ibrahim Coulibaly. Soro’s forces said just 22 people died in the uprising.

Rebel spokesman Alain Lobognon denied that the container was used to imprison people. He would not comment on the other allegations.

Rebels have controlled the north of cocoa-rich Ivory Coast – once one of West Africa’s most stable and prosperous nations – since launching an unsuccessful coup attempt in September 2002.

The civil war that followed split the country between the mainly Muslim north and predominantly Christian and animist south.

Over the past year, troops and militias loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo have been accused of numerous abuses, including the killings of at least 120 people during and after an attempted March opposition rally in the commercial capital, Abidjan.

However, survivors and others now accuse the chief rebel movement of killing dozens of prisoners, many of them civilians, during and after the June uprising.

Amnesty International said it believes some of the 99 mass grave victims had their hands tied behind their backs before being beheaded, while others suffocated in shipping containers.

Korhogo residents said the yellow metal shipping container that once stood at the entrance of the town’s rebel-held army base was regularly used as a prison by rebel commander Fofie Kouakou.

Siaka and Amadou said they were confined in the container before Coulibaly’s uprising began June 20. They were locked up by Kouakou’s men on unrelated complaints – Siaka in a violent family dispute, and Amadou in an alleged motorcycle theft. Fewer than 30 others initially were in the container with them, they said.

But after fighting broke out, more than 100 more men were quickly locked inside.

“We were 125 in there, and it became extremely hot,” Amadou said. “We were hot and hungry. Some of us began collapsing in the container.”

Rebel leaders opened the container two days later – at 3 a.m. on June 22, Amadou said. By that time, it was filled with dead. Kouakou’s people immediately put inmates to work removing the corpses, Amadou and Siaka said.

“We took the dead and put them in a truck, and we counted 75 bodies,” Amadou said, adding that one of his relatives was among the dead.

“When we finished counting the corpses, (Kouakou’s men) took three of us to go with them and the bodies,” Amadou said. “These three never came back.”

Another Korhogo resident, Inza Kone, said nine members of his family – including a boy of 14 – disappeared after being arrested during fighting.

Two weeks later, local elders held a meeting with rebels to find out whether the youths were alive.

“They officially informed them that they were dead, but they didn’t give us back the bodies,” said Kone. “We are powerless.”

AP-ES-08-07-04 0214EDT

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