Bullets fly as disgruntled former soldiers seize big city in Ivory Coast
Abidjan — Demobilised soldiers seized Ivory Coast’s second-largest city on Friday and gunfire erupted at a military camp in another town.
Military sources said reinforcements had been sent to manage the uprising.
The unrest comes weeks after parliamentary elections viewed as a step towards cementing stability in the West African nation emerging from a 2002-11 political crisis as one of the continent’s rising stars.
Gunfire was heard from about 2am in Bouake, a city of about 500,000 residents in the centre of the country. Sporadic shooting continued into the late morning.
Military sources said demobilised soldiers — mainly former rebels from the decade-long conflict — broke into police stations across the city, looting weapons before taking up positions at city entry points.
"The city is under the control of former soldiers," said an army officer by telephone from Bouake. They had taken the second in command at the city’s main military base hostage.
"There are many of them at the north and south entrances to the city. We are on alert and await instructions from the hierarchy."
Shooting also broke out mid-morning at a military base in Daloa, the main trading hub in Ivory Coast’s western cocoa belt.
Bouake was the centre of a rebellion that controlled the northern half of the world’s top cocoa grower from 2002 until Ivory Coast was reunited following a civil war in 2011.
Residents stayed at home and businesses remained closed on Friday morning. A helicopter from Ivory Coast’s UN peacekeeping mission patrolled.
"The city is deserted. Men in balaklavas are patrolling the city on motorcycles or in cars. They aren’t attacking residents ... They told us to stay at home," said Ami Soro, a teacher living in Bouake.
An officer at Ivory Coast’s military headquarters in the commercial capital Abidjan said reinforcements were sent to Bouake. "The situation remains unstable and serious in Bouake. Some civilians and even active-duty soldiers have started to rally to them," he said.
While the former soldiers had not yet stated their demands, it was believed they were seeking payment of money they believed they were owed by the government, said the officer.
A facility in Bouake housing about 200 former soldiers, who were initially brought into the army before later being demobilised, was closed in November.
There was no clear sign of a link between the Bouake events and outbreak of shooting at a military base in Daloa, but the fact the rebels were also demobilised soldiers could indicate the uprising was spreading.
"There is gunfire at the Second Battalion in Daloa. It’s young demobilised soldiers," said a Daloa resident by telephone from a cocoa-processing factory near the army camp.
There was a similar uprising in 2014 when hundreds of soldiers barricaded roads in cities and towns, demanding payment of back wages. The government agreed a financial settlement with the soldiers, who returned to barracks.