November 19, 2014 / 11:54 AM / in 3 years

Ivory Coast government opens talks with disgruntled soldiers

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast’s government opened negotiations with disgruntled soldiers on Wednesday, promising to pay back wages and overdue benefits to thousands of ex-rebels now serving in the army in a bid to quell unrest.

The soldiers, who on Tuesday erected barricades in the commercial capital Abidjan and the second city Bouake as well as in Korhogo, Odienne, and Daloa returned to barracks as they awaited the outcome of the meeting.

Government officials and representatives for the protesters said the talks would stretch into Thursday.

The world’s top cocoa-producing state is still emerging from a decade of political upheaval and a 2011 civil war that saw French- and U.N.-backed rebels topple President Laurent Gbagbo after his refusal to accept an election defeat.

The protesting troops were part of the New Forces rebellion that fought with U.N. and French backing to bring Gbagbo’s rival, current President Alassane Ouattara, to power three years ago.

Some of them belong to a group of 8,400 corporals who were due to begin receiving salaries from the government in 2009 under the terms of a peace deal.

The national armed forces were only formally integrated after Gbagbo’s fall in 2011, however, and are now demanding over two years of back pay and housing benefits along with promotions.

Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko, speaking on national television late on Tuesday, said the government had agreed to the soldiers’ demands.

But following Wednesday’s talks, which included Bakayoko and other government ministers, and the heads of the army and the national security council, the soldiers said that the process by which the payments would be made were still being finalised.

“We’re on the right track,” said Navy Quartermaster Issiaka Ouattara, one of the soldiers’ spokesmen. “We think that the soldiers behind us understand that we are not seeking to destroy the nation or oppose any policy whatsoever.”

The negotiations did not involve another group of protesting soldiers who claimed they had been promised 5 million CFA francs($9,564) to help drive Gbagbo from power.

While Tuesday’s demonstrations remained largely calm and most of the soldiers were unarmed, they sharpened towards nightfall, with sporadic gunfire in Bouake, Daloa and Korhogo.

In Bouake, the rebels’ former stronghold, they looted the central police station overnight and unsuccessfully tried to break into the armoury.

Interior Minister Bakayoko promised that the protesters would not be punished.

Editing by David Lewis, Mark Heinrich and Jonathan Oatis

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