ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast’s government agreed on Tuesday to pay back wages and overdue benefits to thousands of former rebels now serving in the army after they paralyzed several towns across the country with protests, the ministers of defense and the interior said.
The world’s top cocoa producer is still recovering from a decade of political turmoil and a 2011 civil war that saw the French- and U.N.-backed rebels topple President Laurent Gbagbo after his refusal to accept defeat in elections.
Protesting soldiers erected barricades and blocked streets in the commercial capital Abidjan and the country’s second city Bouake as well as in Korhogo, Odienne, Bondoukou and Daloa, a hub of the country’s cocoa industry.
While initially peaceful, the protests, which involved several thousand soldiers, intensified after Defence Minister Paul Koffi Koffi said the government would cede to some demands and urged soldiers to return to barracks.
In Bouake, the former stronghold of the New Forces rebellion, soldiers entered state television and radio to try to broadcast a message rejecting the offer but were unable to do so as staff fled.
Interior Minister Hamad Bakayoko later said the government had agreed to demands of back wages for over 9,000 soldiers and would open talks with the protesters on Wednesday.
“The President of the Republic has heard them,” he said on state television. “There will be no sanctions, because what’s important is that the country advances.”
Bakayoko said one civilian was killed in Abidjan during the protests but declined to give further details.
Gunfire was heard in Bouake, Daloa and Korhogo in the late afternoon, and after nightfall witnesses in those towns said armed soldiers were controlling crossroads, patrolling the streets and searching vehicles.
“The soldiers are deploying in the city center,” one Daloa resident told Reuters. “It’s creating panic.”
Some of the soldiers were demanding government salaries covering part of the time they served in the rebellion.
Others want promotions, benefits and payment of a 5 million CFA franc ($9,557) bonus they say each was promised three years ago while fighting in support of current President Alassane Ouattara.
Ouattara, who defeated Gbagbo in a run-off vote in 2010, has overseen a rapid revival of French-speaking West Africa’s largest economy. But critics accuse him of not doing enough to heal deep political and ethnic divisions.
Gbagbo is awaiting trial before the International Criminal Court charged with crimes against humanity.
Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by David Lewis, Alison Williams and James Dalgleish