JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Gangs of children are roaming the streets of Ivory Coast's biggest city.
Known as "les microbes" (French for "the germs"), they are accused of violent robberies — and have become the scourge of Abidjan, where they are spreading terror among residents.
The Associated Press reports that in one attack blamed on the "microbes," a taxi driver was swarmed and robbed of his fares by a dozen children who stabbed him eight times.
"Microbes" have also been blamed for the murder of a 23-year-old woman.
Another report describes how a man dove into a sewer to save his life after crossing paths with a gang of machete- and knife-wielding youths.
Yacouba Ballo, a criminology professor, told Ivory Coast newspaper Le Patriote about the modus operandi of the gangs: "They gather ... They chose a route, armed with clubs and machetes, and they terrorize passerby, shopkeepers. They grab their belongings. Those who don't bow to their wishes, they slash them. They are fast and they blend into the crowd."
But Ballo cautioned that almost any criminal activity is now being blamed on the "microbes."
The Ivory Coast's minister of interior and security has said the children are traumatized by the country's post-electoral crisis, following presidential polls in late 2010. Some have been sent to a rehabilitation center for young offenders.
But fed-up residents of Abidjan complain the government isn't doing enough to stop the "microbes," and are fighting back with vigilante tactics. Children accused of being part of the gangs have been lynched.
"The phenomenon has expanded because no one was listening to the cries of distress of the suffering population," Pierre Kouame Adjoumani, president of the Ivorian Human Rights League, told the AP.
"The children have transformed themselves into veritable gangs."