ABIDJAN Soldiers left their barracks and blocked streets in several towns and cities across Ivory Coast on Friday, including the commercial capital Abidjan, firing gunshots into the air as their protest over a pay dispute gathered momentum.
The uprising began overnight in Bouake, the second largest city, before spreading quickly, following a course similar to a mutiny in January by the same group that paralysed parts of the country and tarnished its image as a post-war success story.
In Abidjan, the soldiers, most of them ex-rebel fighters who helped bring President Alassane Ouattara to power, erected improvised barricades around the national military headquarters and the defence ministry, sealing off part of the city centre.
The National Security Council held an emergency meeting, a defence ministry source said.
The soldiers were revolting over delayed bonus payments, promised by the government after the January mutiny but which it has struggled to pay after a collapse in the price of cocoa, Ivory Coast's main export, caused a revenue crunch.
On Thursday, a spokesman for 8,400 soldiers who took part in the January rebellion said they would forego demands for more money after meeting with authorities in Abidjan.
The decision was rejected by at least part of the group.
"The (defence) minister doesn't want to negotiate. We've understood and we're waiting for him to come and dislodge us. We're ready," said one leader of the January mutiny who had remained in Bouake. "We don't want to negotiate any more either."
Troops in the towns of Odienne, Man and Korhogo also took to the streets in protest, residents and military sources said.
"THIS ISN'T NORMAL"
Office workers fled through the streets of Abidjan's administrative quarter as gunfire rang out in the morning near the military headquarters and defence ministry, which were seized by the mutinying troops.
"This isn't normal. If there's a demand to be made, I think it has to be done peacefully," said Lacine Tia, who works in the city centre.
A Reuters witness saw three pickup trucks carrying elite Republican Guard troops, who fired warning shots at the mutineers. A standoff in the heart of the city ensued with around 100 elite soldiers and armoured vehicles surrounding the camp.
Before nightfall, a delegation including the Military Chief of Staff General Sekou Toure and the heads of the Republican Guard, Special Forces and National Gendarmerie briefly entered the camp before leaving around 20 minutes later.
"They're definitely putting on a better show of force this time ... They're definitely stronger (than in January)," one Abidjan-based diplomat said, referring to the government's response to the unrest.
President Ouattara, the defence and interior ministers and the security forces' leadership convened an emergency meeting to discuss the uprising.
"Of this group of 8,400, some have understood the message. Others haven't understood the message. We're not negotiating," Defence Minister Alain-Richard Donwahi told Reuters. "Those who don't accept this decision must simply leave the army."
Ivory Coast emerged from a 2002-2011 conflict as one of the world's fastest-growing economies. But deep divisions persist, particularly in a military assembled from ex-rebel and loyalist fighters.
The government paid the 8,400 troops behind January's rebellion bonuses of 5 million CFA francs ($8,370) each as part of an agreement to end that mutiny.
The soldiers were due a staggered payment of an additional 7 million CFA francs. But they said the government asked for a delay in payment to ease financial pressure on the Treasury, citing a collapse in cocoa revenues.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)