20 September 2002

Cote d'Ivoire: Mutineers Ignore Ultimatum as Deadline Passes

Johannesburg — The 15h00 GMT deadline, issued by the government of Cote d’Ivoire for rebel soldiers to lay down their arms, passed on Friday afternoon, with no immediate evidence that the mutineers were prepared to surrender.

Earlier, the Defence Minister, Moise Lida Kouassi, announced on state television that the dissidents, controlling the second largest city, Bouake, must give up their fight or face the full force of an attack by loyalist government troops. Lida Kouassi warned that "the town of Bouake will be cleaned up before nightfall."

The ultimatum, 24 hours after what is now widely viewed as a violent and failed coup bid, came as Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo cut short an official visit to Italy, cancelling an audience with the Pope, and made his way home.

The Executive Secretary of the Economic Community of West African States, Ecowas, Mohamed ibn Chambas, called the events in Abidjan "very regrettable" and expressed "deep concern about the violence in Cote d'Ivoire". He said "Cote D'Ivoire is very critical to the general stability of our subregion," and warned that Ecowas would not accept any unconstitutional military takeovers in the region.

Mutinous troops in Cote d'Ivoire had earlier said they wanted to negotiate with the government, but were told that they must first hand over their weapons. The request for talks was conveyed in a broadcast statement by the Sports Minister, Francois Amichia who, with his wife, is being held hostage by some of the rebel soldiers in Bouake.

It was not immediately clear on Friday whether a government counter-offensive would succeed in dislodging the mutineers in Bouake, who claimed to have fought off an earlier attack by loyalist troops.

The renegade forces are holding Bouake and the strategic northern opposition stronghold of Korhogo where a local official was quoted as saying that the rebels were in control but that the situation was calm.

On Thursday, Robert Guei, the retired general accused by the government of being behind the coup plot, was killed. Initially the authorities said he died in a firefight and state television showed images of his body, outdoors, lying face upwards.

But Guei’s associates claimed on Friday that the general and his wife, Rose, were executed as they sat down to lunch at home and that Guei’s corpse showed evidence of a single gunshot to his head.

Guei earned the dubious title, in December 1999, of being the first military leader in Cote d’Ivoire, after more junior soldiers seized power in what began as an army mutiny over pay and conditions, but mushroomed into a coup d’etat.

Until then, the country had lived off its reputation as a haven of economic and political stability in an otherwise violence-prone region, with wars raging in neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone and rebellions in other parts of West Africa.

Thursday’s uprising appeared also to start as a mutiny, by disgruntled soldiers angry that they were being forcibly retired from the army, without their consent. The prime minister, Pascal Affi Nguessan, said about 750 renegades were responsible for the troubles, and that they had been recruited when Guei was the military head of state.

But another scenario gained more currency Friday, with accusations by the government, echoed by the Ivorian ambassador to Washington on Thursday, that foreign forces were involved in the uprising.

The diplomat, Pascal Kokora, cited rumours that the Interior Minister Emile Boga Doudou was assassinated Thursday by "a commando unit from a neighbouring country to the north".

The Defence Minister repeated on Friday that an armed column came from a ‘neighbouring’ state to help bolster the mutineers. Lida Kouassi told Radio France International that "at Korhogo, there was a column of six four-wheel drive (vehicles) and a Toyota which arrived from the border," adding that the those in the column attacked key positions in the city.

Most analysts take the phrase ‘neighbouring state’ to mean Burkina Faso, a country with which Cote d’Ivoire has strained relations. Gbagbo’s government has accused Ouagadougou of harbouring dissident Ivorian soldiers who could destabilize Cote d'Ivoire.

The authorities in Burkina Faso have also engaged in a war of words, saying Burkinabe citizens living and working across the border are regularly harassed. Burkina has the largest population of expatriates in Cote d’Ivoire.

The political and religious divisions associated with the contested nationality of the main Ivorian opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara, have also caused tension between Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso. Ouattara, described by his critics as a Burkinabe and not a true Ivorian, is a Muslim and a northerner.

Ouattara was prevented from contesting the presidential election in 2000, which was almost stolen by Guei, but was eventually won by Gbagbo.

The Ivorian leader’s political stronghold remains the largely Christian and animist south, and his homeland in western Cote d’Ivoire, while the predominantly Muslim north is a bastion of opposition support.

The main city, Abidjan, scene of violent firefights on Thursday, was reported to be calmer, Friday. Troops patrolled the streets and manned barricades at key entry points into the commercial and administrative centre on the Plateau, which is home to the presidency, ministries and other government buildings.

Residents who stayed home during the fighting ventured out on Friday to stock up at supermarkets. But the majority of Abidjanais chose not to go to work, despite a call for them to do so, by the prime minister.

Public transport and private vehicles were back on the roads, though traffic was reportedly much reduced. Long lines formed at petrol stations when they opened after the nighttime curfew which remains in force until Tuesday.

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