THE hunted emerge from the forest as darkness descends along the equator. In the shadows of dusk the children are the first to appear, ghostlike, as the acrid black smoke from distant bushfires floats high above the primeval canopy that has held them prisoner for days.
This weekend, as a fight to the death grips Abidjan, the Ivory Coast's main city, this remote western region of the country has proved a secret killing ground for heavily armed mercenaries and militias, backed by Alassane Ouattara. His claim to have won the disputed presidential elections five months ago, against the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, has the absolute backing of the UN.
With one million desperate people forced to flee inside the country and more than 100,000 refugees escaping through the Ivory Coast's western forests to the sanctuary of Liberia, a humanitarian disaster threatens to overwhelm the survivors.
The stories emerging from the bush in recent days, some revealed here for the first time, bring with them chilling reminders of ethnic slaughter in Rwanda and Darfur.
Travelling along and across the western border, we learnt from credible witnesses that Liberian mercenaries funded by the Ivory Coast's president-elect have engaged in a systematic slaughter of the local population, mostly members of the Guere tribe, in two districts, Toulepleu and Blolequin.
The pro-Ouattara forces have murdered pregnant women and lined up the unburied bodies of hundreds of victims along main roads. Survivors have given startling accounts of the slaughter of an estimated 1000 innocent men and women in the border town of Duekoue alone.
One of the militias working alongside Ouattara's "revolutionary" forces has even adopted the name the Kofi Annan Boys -- a reference to the UN's former secretary-general -- as if to assert some lofty international mandate.
They are a militia boosted by hired guns from over the border in Liberia and regarded with particular dread by the locals for their macabre taste in ritual murder. Hunting the borderlands at night they have been joined by the Chevaux (horses), another group made up of mercenaries from neighbouring Burkino Faso and Guinea.
"They called themselves the Kofi Annan Boys. They came into Carrefour (a supermarket) at 3am, scraping their machetes on the ground and blowing whistles," said Emmanuel Guer, 36, now over the border in the relative safety of Liberia.
"They went from house to house looking for Gbagbo supporters. Those with T-shirts or posters were dragged out and put on to trucks and driven off.
"We were marched to a compound in the town. When we arrived, there were 150 people in the hall.
"At the front they were dragging people out, men and women, in fives, five after five after five. Each time they were taken out we heard gunfire."
He said the butchery was systematic. "How can I describe what it was like? We were squeezed in like cattle; all you could see in the dark were bulging eyes; women were crying hysterically. People fought to get further back in the queue. They were killing us in a really thought-out way. It was extermination."
Guer claims at least 100 people were killed as he struggled to escape from the front of the crowd.
"They were shooting them in the back of the head and then dragging the bodies off, but it was taking a long time for them to do it.
"Eventually me and six others fought our way out of a back window and escaped over a fence. As we ran towards the highway, the road was lined with the dead. Many of the women had their throats cut."
Another witness, Pierre M'lehi, a cocoa planter, described a bulldozer digging mass graves in Duekoue. "The corpses lined up along the roadside were fresh and rotting," he said. "It was as if they had been put there as a warning."
A report published by Human Rights Watch at the weekend described the barbarity of Ouattara's forces -- disembowelling tribal enemies alive -- and their propensity for sexual violence. It detailed how Gbagbo supporters were summarily executed in the fields or raped in their homes in five western towns including Duekoue last month. A 47-year-old woman told the group's researchers she looked on as two fighters killed her father, husband and 10-year-old son at the family's cocoa farm near Doke.
In at least 10 villages around Toulepleu and Blolequin, locals said they hid and watched as Ouattara's men set light to their houses and the buildings used to store crops and seeds, slaughtered their animals and stole everything of value. A 67-year-old woman described pro-Ouattara fighters taking several elderly captives out each day -- often men and women between 60 and 80 years old -- and executing them at point-blank range. Dozens of women were gang-raped.
One from Bakoubli, near Toulepleu, said Ouattara's forces had raped her in front of her children, then killed her husband.
A 57-year-old man from Zoguine outlined an attack on March 7 at 10am: "My mother was old and sick and couldn't leave her bed. They burnt her house with her still in it. I found her burnt body later, after they left."
In at least four cases, victims had parts of their arms cut off and were then disembowelled with long knives -- two while they were still alive and two others after they had been shot. "They cut the throats of women. Who is killing our people? Is it our new government? Is it the United Nations?" asked Ricard Glazai Ouloho, a teacher, as we sat in Toe Town, a sprawling border village that has become a transit centre for tens of thousands of Ivorian refugees.
The carnage was still going on, he said: "I came through the Gedeh forest on Thursday. The killing hasn't stopped. Everyone here is talking about the slaughter in Duekoue, but this genocide is still happening in remote villages and towns across the west. They are hunting us down like dogs and burying the bodies in the bush."
Ouloho, whose testimony was corroborated by several other witnesses, claimed more than 100 men and women were slaughtered in Douandrou when Ouattara supporters entered the town.
"We escaped into the bush, but when we returned there were women lying dead in the courtyards. I saw a pregnant woman with her belly sliced open. The mercenaries were going from compound to compound, rooting out Gbabgo supporters."
His voice shaking with anger, he recalled seeing the skulls of young men smashed open with machetes.
He added: "We've been told that children were thrown down wells for screaming so much after their parents had been killed before their very eyes."
The country was once a bastion of stability and prosperity in west Africa. Ivorians went to the polls last November in the hope of healing the divisions between a south loyal to Gbagbo and a rebel-controlled north.
According to electoral officials, international observers and the UN, Ouattara, the opposition candidate, won with 54 per cent of the vote. Gbagbo, the incumbent, received 46 per cent, but refused to acknowledge Ouattara's victory.
Instead, Gbagbo used government forces to barricade Ouattara and his supporters inside a hotel in Abidjan for months while the international community tried to pressure the incumbent into stepping down. Their efforts failed.
The two sides remained locked in a stalemate until late last month, when Ouattara's supporters swept south, taking control of most of the country and arriving at Gbagbo's Abidjan residence.
At that point UN and French forces finally intervened, providing military support for Ouattara's forces. Critics claim the intervention came too late, as thousands of Ivorians were already dying in wholesale ethnic violence.
"What we have now in the Ivory Coast is an explosive mix of political, economic and ethnic tension that's boiling over into incidents like the killings in Duekoue," said Louis Falcy, director of the International Red Cross in the Ivory Coast. "Even if the political and military showdown in Abidjan ends today, we're concerned that looting, hostility, bloodshed, reprisal killings and sexual assaults will escalate."
A vast humanitarian crisis is emerging over the border in Liberia, where 100,000 pro-Gbagbo supporters have fled.
According to Tariq Riebl, an Oxfam official in Liberia, the situation is worsening daily.
"The immense scale of human suffering here is appalling and, for those who have made it through the forest to the relative sanctuary of Liberia, we need a huge push to avoid a health disaster," he said.
Many of the families arriving in the border towns are in mourning, either for loved ones left behind or, in the case of the Kouide family, the loss of two small children while traversing the Cavalla River on Liberia's eastern border.
According to Aimee Gaye, 34, the children's aunt from Blolequin, where the UN believes genocide has been committed, freedom has come at an unimaginable cost. "When the militia entered our village we were really afraid and just ran with the children," she said. "We had to eat raw food and fruit in the forest and drink foul water from rivers and creeks. The children all got sick."
As she crossed the river, holding her niece Marina, 6, and her nephew Antoine, 5, they slipped on a tree trunk. "The water was so fast they fell in and the water took them," she said. "I saw these children fall beneath the waters and disappear. I feel terrible, the pain of a mother. I was responsible for my sister's children and they died."