Gunfire as I.Coast troops resume protest despite 'apology'
Disgruntled Ivorian soldiers took to the streets of Abidjan and two other cities on Friday, firing angrily into the air a day after publicly apologising for a string of recent uprisings.
Rebellious troops surrounded the military's headquarters in Abidjan after a spokesman for the protesters publicly apologised to the president for a January mutiny which triggered months of unrest.
At the heart of the matter is an unresolved dispute over pay, with the soldiers demanding hefty pay rises in a protest which has found echoes across the country.
Troops took up position in front of the sprawling Gallieni military camp in the Plateau neighbourhood of Abidjan, the country's economic capital, as other soldiers and police set up a security cordon, an AFP journalist said.
With ammunition belts slung round their chests, berets or camouflage caps on their heads, they fired sporadically into the air, blocking off access to the surrounding area.
"Money or death!" roared one of the soldiers, as the noise of the gunfire sent a colony of bats nesting in the nearby trees shooting into the air.
One soldier could be seen wandering around with a rocket launcher, another carried a machinegun with a string of bullets looped around his shoulders, Rambo style.
The renewed shooting which also affected two other cities, began hours after national television broadcast a ceremony in which a soldier presented as a spokesman for the rebellious troops said they wished to apologise to President Alassane Ouattara for the mutiny.
"This is our answer to yesterday's announcement," one of the rebel soldiers told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"We're not like teachers who express themselves with pens, our profession is guns."
- 'Very frightened' -
Among those stranded in Abidjan was a school teacher who had come to the area to collect a document from a nearby administrative building.
"It's not good for the country, we don't know what's going to happen and everyone is very frightened," he said, without giving his name.
A handful of civil servants could be seen hiding behind walls, watching the situation as the soldiers let off sporadic rattles of gunfire to keep the curious at bay.
"They began to shoot at around 8:00 am, military trucks drove past and soldiers got out. They've been firing in the air every couple of minutes," one civil servant told AFP, whose offices overlook the camp.
Shooting was also heard overnight in Korhogo, a town in the north, witnesses told AFP.
And in Bouake, Ivory Coast's second city where the protest movement began in January, angry soldiers could be seen driving round in trucks or wandering the streets, firing potshots into the air.
Most of the city's shops were closed along with its university.
- 'Ouattara must pay us' -
January's uprising saw former rebels who had been integrated into the army's ranks staging a mutiny over their demand for bonuses.
The troops, one-time rebels who backed Ouattara and controlled the northern half of the country between 2002 and 2011, were demanding the government pay them 12 million CFA francs (18,000 euros) per soldier.
They received five million francs (7,500 euros) in January and had been due to receive the rest this month, rebel sources say.
"Twelve minus five is seven! They still owe us seven. There is nothing to discuss," said one of the soldiers.
"Ouattara must pay us. The fact he's still in power is down to us," explained another.
Thursday night's ceremony, which was organised without knowledge of the press, appeared to signal a dramatic end to the protest movement.
As well as apologising, a spokesman for the former rebels, identified as Sergeant Fofana, said they were giving up all their financial demands
"We apologise for the various situations we know we have caused. We definitively renounce all our financial demands," he said, in remarks hailed by Ouattara as "sincere".
The world's top cocoa provider, Ivory Coast has an army numbering around 22,000 soldiers, among them many former rebels who were integrated into the armed forces after years of conflict.
Last year, the government unveiled an ambitious plan to modernise the military, part of which would involve the departure of several thousand men, particularly ex-rebels, who will not be replaced.