BOUAKE, Ivory Coast: Gunfire broke out in several Ivory Coast cities, including the commercial capital Abidjan, overnight and early on Saturday, residents and soldiers said, as a revolt by military personnel demanding higher wages and bonuses appeared to gain momentum.
Soldiers seized Bouake, the second-largest city, early on Friday and the uprising later expanded to at least four other cities and towns, as the government sought to calm the unrest by promising talks with the mutineers.
However, heavy gunfire was heard during the night in the northern city of Korhogo and in the early morning in Bouake.
Residents and soldiers later reported shooting in Man, Toulepleu and at a major military camp in Abidjan, a city of nearly 5 million residents where the president, administration and parliament are based.
“Shooting has started in our camp too now,” said a soldier at the Akouedo military base located in a residential section of Abidjan. The gunfire was confirmed by a local resident.
Ivory Coast – French-speaking West Africa’s largest economy – has emerged from a 2002-11 political crisis as one of the continent’s rising economic stars.
However, years of conflict and a failure to reform its army, thrown together from a patchwork of former rebel fighters and government soldiers, have left it with an unruly force hobbled by internal divisions.
Renegade soldiers took up positions at key entry points to Bouake early on Friday, beginning a standoff with troop reinforcements sent there after word of the revolt reached the army headquarters in Abidjan.
Saturday’s shooting in Bouake, a city of around half a million inhabitants, began at around 6 a.m. (0600 GMT).
It was not immediately clear what provoked the gunfire, but a member of the uprising said soldiers had seen what they considered suspicious movements outside the camp in Bouake.
“This is gunfire (by the renegades) to discourage them,” he said.
While the shooting later died down, intermittent bursts of gunfire continued.
A Reuters reporter, who entered Bouake late on Friday and met some of the mutineers, said they were composed of low-ranking soldiers but also included some demobilised combatants.
Nearly all appeared to be former members of the New Forces rebellion, which had used Bouake as its de facto capital and controlled the northern half of Ivory Coast from 2002 until the country was reunited following a 2011 civil war.
Defence Minister Alain-Richard Donwahi in a statement late on Friday called for calm and said the government was prepared to listen to the soldiers’ grievances after the uprising spread to other cities including Daloa, Daoukro and Odienne.
Calling the revolt “understandable but deplorable for the image of the country”, he said he would travel to Bouake on Saturday to speak directly with the mutineers.
Bema Fofana, a parliament member representing Bouake, said the soldiers had agreed in a meeting late on Friday to return to barracks from 6 a.m. on Saturday. But a local journalist in Bouake said that, hours later, the situation on the streets had not changed.
“They are maintaining their positions. They are still at the entrances to the city and at the central roundabout,” the journalist said, asking that his name not be used due to fear of reprisal.