ABIDJAN Demobilised rebel fighters blocked access to Ivory Coast's second city on Monday, demanding bonus payments and jobs in the latest bout of unrest to strike the West African nation, which has been touted as a rare, post-war economic success story.
The former fighters, some wearing balaclavas or their faces blackened with ashes, set up barricades, sealing off the main road south from Bouake, the centre of a wave of army mutinies that paralysed the world's top cocoa grower earlier this year.
Witnesses said several hundred demobilised fighters, some armed, blocked traffic on the road, which is one of the primary routes between the port of Abidjan and landlocked Mali and Burkina Faso.
The roadblock was only removed after hours of talks with local officials and a promise, according to a spokesman for the protesters, that President Alassane Ouattara would meet with the group's leaders.
"He is going to meet with us in Abidjan," said Amadou Ouattara, who described himself as the spokesman for the ex-rebels and is not related to the president. "He was not aware of our situation."
A representative of the president's office said she was not aware of any meeting having been agreed. The government's spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
SALARIES AND BONUSES
Split from 2002 to 2011 between rebels in the north and government forces in the south, Ivory Coast is now emerging as one of the world's fastest growing economies. However, this year's unrest has exposed deep divisions in the military.
A Bouake resident said some of the former fighters had ordered civil servants at the nearby offices of the national tax authority to leave the building. But by early afternoon they had begun to dismantle their barricades.
"They are starting to leave. There aren't many of them left," said Isabelle Kouassi, whose bus had been turned back as it attempted to leave the city early on Monday.
Ouattara said the Bouake protesters represented some 6,800 former fighters across the country who were demobilised after civil war ended in 2011.
They are demanding bonuses and salaries they say they are owed from the period between 2007 and 2012, amounting to 18 million CFA francs ($30,120) each. They also want positions in the armed forces and government services, he said.
The government agreed earlier this year to pay bonuses to some 8,400 active duty soldiers as part of a deal to end mutinies that first erupted in Bouake in January before spreading to other cities.
Those payments, which totalled about $160 million, have pressured Ivory Coast's finances at a time when plummeting world cocoa prices have forced the government to slash this year's budget by around 10 percent.
($1 = 597.6000 CFA francs)
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Ed Osmond)