Gunfire erupts in Ivory Coast amid talks to settle army revolt

BOUAKE, Ivory Coast (REUTERS) - Heavy gunfire broke out briefly in Ivory Coast's second city on Friday (Jan 13) during talks between the leaders of an army mutiny last week and government ministers seeking to resolve a dispute over bonuses, witnesses and negotiators for the soldiers said.

The unrest raised concerns of a renewal of the two-day revolt, which began in Bouake a week ago before spreading to cities and towns across the West African country, forcing the government to yield to many of the soldiers' demands.

Negotiators for the mutineers, most of them ex-rebel fighters integrated into the army, said the shooting was simply soldiers venting their frustration after they accused a government delegation headed by Defence Minister Alain-Richard Donwahi of reneging on the earlier deal.

"They don't want to pay our bonuses. That's why our men were shooting, to show they weren't happy," said one of the mutiny's leaders, who asked not to be named.

He said that the gunfire later subsided and the talks had restarted. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Donwahi, his delegation and the mutineers' negotiators were trapped for several hours during a similar incident during the first round of negotiations last Saturday.

Ivory Coast has one of the world's fastest growing economies, but has struggled to resolve deeply entrenched problems left over from years of civil wars and political turmoil.

CONCESSIONS

The government has failed to bring significant reform to the army, which remains a patchwork of former rebel fighters and troops who stayed loyal to the government during the 2002 to 2011 crisis.

Divisions and parallel chains of command persist.

"As promised, we are back to continue the discussions with our men," Donwahi said after arriving by helicopter earlier in the day with other senior government and military officials.

"This is our country, our security. Our men are also ready to move in the right direction."

The mutineers say the government last week agreed to pay bonuses of 12 million CFA franc (S$27,500) to thousands of soldiers as well as shorten the period between promotions, concessions that would cost tens of millions of dollars.

Donwahi has acknowledged that President Alassane Ouattara has accepted to pay some bonuses but he has declined to give details.

The day began with chaotic scenes as soldiers fired guns into the air to disperse civilian protesters shortly before the government delegation's arrival, sending residents fleeing home and forcing organisers to move the venue of the talks.

Soldiers who took part in last week's unrest poured out of their barracks in pickups and military trucks, spreading out across the city of half a million inhabitants.

"I'm going home. With this shooting starting up again, I prefer to be at home," teacher Sylvain Kouame said following the dispersal of the protest during which residents called for the soldiers to return to their barracks and end their uprising.