Heavy gunfire erupts in Ivory Coast’s two main cities

Mutinous troops surrounded the military's headquarters as well as the defense ministry in the Ivory Coast's largest city, Abidjan, over an unresolved pay dispute that has been fueling unrest in the African nation since January.

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YAMOUSSOUKRO (Reuters) – Heavy gunfire erupted on Monday in Ivory Coast’s two largest cities Abidjan and Bouake, witnesses said, as the military pressed an operation aimed at ending a four-day nationwide army mutiny over bonus payments.

Loyalist troops began advancing towards Bouake, the epicenter of the revolt, on Sunday and sporadic gunfire was heard overnight there as well as at military camps in Abidjan. Shooting in both cities intensified before dawn.

“There was heavy shooting at the northern entrance to the city and in the city center. It’s calmed a bit but we’re still hearing gunfire,” said one Bouake resident. Other residents confirmed the shooting.

The heavy shooting was also heard in Daloa, a hub for the western cocoa-growing regions. It was not immediately clear what impact the unrest might have on the flow of cocoa supplies.

The soldiers were revolting over delayed bonus payments, promised by the government after an earlier mutiny in January but not fully paid after a collapse in the price of cocoa, Ivory Coast’s main export, caused a revenue crunch.

A spokesman for the mutiny denied that any clashes had occurred in Bouake and said the renegade soldiers were firing in the air to dissuade any advance on the city.

But on Sunday, the group’s leaders rejected the army’s demand that they disarm and surrender.

“We can no longer turn back,” said their spokesman Sergeant Seydou Kone. “We don’t know what will happen to us, so we just want our money so we can start a new life. But we can’t give up now that we’ve reached this point.”

DIVIDED SOCIETY

Ivory Coast has been touted as a post-war success story after emerging from a 2002-2011 political crisis as one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

But society remains deeply divided and a wave of mutinies that began earlier this year has exposed the lack of unity in a military assembled from former rebel and loyalist combatants.

The 8,400 mutineers, most of them former rebels who said they were promised bonuses for fighting to bring President Alassane Ouattara to power, received 5 million CFA francs ($8,400) each to end the January uprising.

But the government has struggled to pay remaining bonuses of 7 million CFA francs.

A spokesman for the group said on Thursday they would drop demands for the remaining money, an announcement rejected by many of the soldiers who sparked the current revolt.

An Abidjan resident said mutinying soldiers came out of the West African nation’s largest military camp and erected barricades early on Monday, blocking traffic along one of the main thoroughfares in the east of the city.

Several schools near the camp did not open and the Abidjan-based African Development Bank, which employs several thousand people – many of them international staff – told its employees to stay home.

“I’ve been hearing the sound of Kalashnikovs and a heavier weapon. That began at around 5 a.m. (0500 GMT) … It’s intense,” said another Abidjan resident, who lives near the U.S. Embassy and the presidential residence.

At least eight people were shot by the mutineers in Bouake and the northern city of Korhogo on Saturday and Sunday as popular opposition against the revolt gathered momentum, sparking protest marches in several cities, including Abidjan. One man, a demobilized former rebel fighter, died on Sunday.
– Ange Aboa
(Additional reporting by Joe Bavier; Editing by Tom Heneghan)