Soldiers revolt in Ivory Coast over pay dispute, open fire, block roads
Odienne - Soldiers left their barracks and blocked streets in several towns and cities across Ivory Coast on Friday, including the commercial capital, firing gunshots into the air as their protest over a pay dispute gathered momentum.
The uprising began overnight in Bouake, the second largest city, before spreading quickly. The soldiers, most of them ex-rebel fighters who helped bring President Alassane Ouattara to power, erected improvised barricades around the national military headquarters and the defense ministry, sealing off part of downtown Abidjan.
The National Security Council held an emergency meeting, a defense ministry source said.
The soldiers were revolting over delayed bonus payments, promised by the government after a nationwide mutiny in January but which it has struggled to pay after a collapse in the price of Cocoa, Ivory Coast's main export, hurt national revenues.
On Thursday, a spokesman for 8,400 soldiers who took part in the January rebellion said they would forego demands for more money after meeting with authorities in Abidjan.
"That's not what they were meant to say," said one leader of the January mutiny who had remained in Bouake and asked not to be named, explaining the soldiers' actions.
He said the mutineers would seal off access to Bouake in the evening if the authorities failed to respond.
OFFICE WORKERS FLEE
In Abidjan, office workers fled through the streets in the city's administrative quarter as gunfire rang out.
"This isn't normal. If there's a demand to be made, I think it has to be done peacefully," said Lacine Tia, who works in the city center.
A Reuters witness saw three pickup trucks carrying elite Republican Guard troops, who fired warning shots that pushed the mutineers back inside the military headquarters compound. A standoff in the heart of the city ensued.
"They're definitely putting on a better show of force this time ... They're definitely stronger (than in January)," one Abidjan-based diplomat said, referring to the government's response to the unrest.
President Ouattara, the defense and interior ministers and the security forces' leadership convened an emergency meeting to discuss the uprising. Neither the defense minister nor the government's spokesman were available for comment.
Mirroring the rapid spread of the January mutinies, troops in the towns of Odienne, Man and Korhogo also took to the streets in protest, residents and military sources said.
"We're still hearing gunfire. They are firing in the air. To be safe we are starting to send the children home from school," said Sarah Toure, a teacher in Bouake, in the late morning.
The gunfire in Bouake later eased, residents said, but revolting soldiers remained throughout the city and on the main road leading south toward the administrative capital Yamoussoukro and Abidjan.
Ivory Coast emerged from a 2002-2011 conflict as one of the world's fastest-growing economies. But deep divisions persist, particularly in a military assembled from ex-rebel and loyalist fighters.
The government paid the 8,400 troops behind January's rebellion bonuses of 5 million CFA francs ($8,370) each as part of an agreement to end that mutiny.
The soldiers were due a staggered payment of an additional 7 million CFA francs. But they said the government asked for a delay in payment to ease financial pressure on the Treasury, citing a collapse in cocoa revenues.