BOUAKE, Ivory Coast Jan 7 (Reuters) – A delegation led by Ivory Coast’s Defence Minister Alain-Richard Donwahi reached an agreement on Saturday with mutinying soldiers to end a two-day revolt that has spread unrest across the West African nation, said a local official involved in the talks.
“We have a deal. There’s white smoke,” said Djande Lorgn, the sub-prefect in the city of Bouake where the talks took place. “This accord ends the mutiny.”
Earlier in the day mutinying soldiers entered Ivory Coast’s military headquarters and fired into the air inside the compound housing the defence ministry, a diplomatic source said.
The uprising began early on Friday when disgruntled soldiers – mainly former rebel fighters – demanding wage increases and bonuses seized Bouake, the second-largest city, then spread to at least four other cities and towns later in the day.
Residents and soldiers reported shooting in Man, Toulepleu, Bondoukou and Abidjan, a city of nearly 5 million residents where the president, administration and parliament are based.
“There’s a lot of shooting in the air inside the ministry of defence,” said the diplomatic source who saw and spoke to the mutineers. “It’s in the hands of the bad guys.”
Rogue soldiers had also erected makeshift barricades around the nearby military headquarters, the source said.
President Alassane Ouattara was visiting neighbouring Ghana for the swearing-in of its new president, after which he returned to Abidjan in the afternoon for a special cabinet meeting.
Saturday saw the revolt rapidly gain momentum as angry soldiers took to the streets in town after town, often firing their guns in the air and warning residents to return home.
Defence Minister Alain-Richard Donwahi travelled to Bouake on Saturday in an attempt to negotiate with the mutiny’s leaders and quell the uprising.
“I came, as promised, to meet with our brothers. I am there to reassure them, as the president asked me to,” Donwahi said before meeting with leaders of the revolt. “We are going to listen and find a solution.”
Ivory Coast – French-speaking West Africa’s largest economy – has emerged from a 2002-11 political crisis as one of the continent’s rising economic stars.
However, years of conflict and a failure to reform its army, thrown together from a patchwork of former rebel fighters and government soldiers, have left it with an unruly force hobbled by internal divisions.
Heavy gunfire was heard during the night in the northern city of Korhogo and early on Saturday in Bouake.
The revolt then spread to the Akouedo military base located in a residential section of Abidjan, where gunfire was confirmed by a soldier inside the camp and a local resident.
Another diplomatic source said armed dissident soldiers – some of whom blackened their faces with ashes or wore scarves around their heads – blocked a main road near the camp and threatened people in passing cars.
Loyalist troops sought to reinforce security in Abidjan. A Reuters reporter saw elite Republican Guard soldiers deployed on two of the three bridges spanning the lagoon that divides the city’s northern and southern halves.
Members of a special police and military security unit were positioned near the third bridge, the first diplomat said.
Abidjan residents, meanwhile, rushed to supermarkets to buy bottled water and other provisions, fearing violence could eventually paralyse the city.
A Reuters reporter in Bouake, who met some of the mutineers, said they were composed of low-ranking soldiers but also included some demobilised combatants.
Nearly all appeared to be former members of the New Forces rebellion, which had used Bouake as its de facto capital and controlled the northern half of Ivory Coast from 2002 until the country was reunited following a 2011 civil war.
Defence Minister Donwahi arrived in Bouake in the early afternoon accompanied by Lieutenant-Colonel Issiaka Ouattara, known as Wattao, a former rebel leader who is now the deputy commander of the Republican Guard.
Troop reinforcements were sent towards Bouake on Friday after word of the revolt reached the army headquarters in Abidjan, creating a standoff with renegade soldiers holding positions at the entrance to the city.
Soldiers from the country’s U.N. peacekeeping mission were also blocked on the outskirts of Bouake on Saturday after mutineers refused to let them enter.
During a similar uprising in 2014, when hundreds of soldiers barricaded roads in cities across Ivory Coast demanding back pay, the government agreed a financial settlement.
(Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly; Additional reporting and writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Dale Hudson and Stephen Powell)