Johannesburg — Confusion reigned in Abidjan and other key cities in Cote dIvoire on Thursday, after residents were woken in the early morning by sustained, heavy gunfire and mortar blasts in what has been called an attempted coup by the authorities and an army mutiny by others.
The Ivorian defence minister, Moise Lida Kouassi, said later "There are indications which show that we are facing a coup attempt",
By early afternoon, the minister said he could confirm that a former military leader and retired general Robert Guei - accused of being behind the army uprising - had been killed. The minister said Gueis death was "100 percent certain and had been confirmed by three sources."
Gueis body was apparently found in a street near a main hospital in Abidjan, a few hours after he was named as being responsible for the mutiny.
Later, unconfirmed reports quoting diplomatic sources in Abidjan said the Ivorian Interior Minister, Maitre Emile Boga Doudou, had been killed in an attack on his house.
Guei came to power in late 1999 after Cote dIvoires first successful coup detat but was driven from office less than a year later after he tried and failed to rig presidential elections. Twenty-four hours after he was sworn in, in October 2000, Guei was forced to step down in a popular revolution, despite initial support from government troops.
The man then declared president, Laurent Gbagbo, has since been in charge of a deeply unstable Cote dIvoire, a former French colony once considered to be a haven of peace and stability in politically volatile West Africa. Gbagbo is currently out of the country on an official visit to Italy.
Early on Thursday, reports said disgruntled soldiers loyal to Guei, who were due to be retired from the armed forces, had begun shooting before dawn, exchanging machine-gun fire with loyalist forces.
Prime Minister Pascal Affi NGuessan said the 750 mutineers were demanding reintegration into the army. The troops are thought to be have been originally recruited into the armed forces under Gueis watch.
The French News Agency, AFP, quoted one mutineer, Kone Daouda, saying that he rejected being retired. "Weve been in the army two years. We refuse. To make ourselves heard, we only have our arms. Well go all the way."
The sports minister was reported taken hostage in the second city, Bouake, which also came under a barrage of gunfire on Thursday and is said to be under the control of the mutineers. The defence minister reported that the rebels had killed the army commander of the central region.
Korhogo, the predominantly Muslim northern opposition stronghold, is also said to have come under rebel fire, and the local army commander reported injured.
The government has said it is in control of the situation and that loyal troops have secured all strategic locations, as well as two key military camps, in Abidjan. But the situation remains confused.
The mood in Cote dIvoire has been tense for months, with political intrigue and unrest, ethnic strife - pitting the largely Christian and animist south against the Muslim north - and rumours of coups, as well as disenchantment within the army.
A controversial reconciliation forum late last year helped to ease the tension and there has been some rapprochement between Gbagbo and his opposition rivals, especially his main political adversary, the former prime minister, Alassane Dramane Ouattara. Ouattara, a northern Muslim, was disqualified from contesting from the 2000 presidential poll on grounds of his nationality.
Ouattara has recently had his Ivorian nationality restored, sparking angry reaction from opponents who say he is from neighbouring Burkina Faso.
In a cabinet reshuffle a few months ago, Gbagbo gave several ministeral portfolios to members of opposition groupings, including both Ouattara's and Gueis parties.
But Guei pulled his ministers out of the government last week, breaking months of silence, and accused Gbagbos administration of mismanagement. He also said the government had detained both civilians and soldiers without reasonable explanation.
At least a dozen people are reported killed in Thursdays heavy fighting, with reports of bodies lying on the streets of Abidjan.