ABIDJAN — Ivory Coast should take urgent steps to disarm former rebels involved in rising violent crime in and around the central town of Bouake, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Tuesday.

Since early December, at least 22 people have been murdered in the area during attacks on passengers travelling on motorbikes or in commercial vehicles, the non-governmental organisation said in a statement.

"Bouake residents said the road banditry occurs daily and is part of a striking rise in violent crime that has crippled daily life. Residents said police and gendarmes have neither protected them from, nor properly investigated, the violent attacks," the rights' group added.

The Ivorian government "needs to show it intends to end this violence by disarming former combatants and ensuring that police and gendarmes are equipped to protect Ivorians and stem the rampant criminality around Bouake," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The victims who spoke to Human Rights Watch, said the attackers were associated with the 'Republican Forces', a term commonly used to describe tens of thousands of youth who took up arms in 2011 to remove former President Laurent Gbagbo from power after he refused to recognize President Alassane Ouattara's electoral victory.

Bouake is the former capital of the Forces Nouvelles (New Forces) armed group that effectively controlled the northern half of the country beginning in September 2002 and constituted the bulk of the Republican Forces during the post-election period.

The former rebellion leader Guillaume Soro is now prime minister and defence minister.