Soldiers confront protesters at chaotic start to Ivory Coast peace talks
BOUAKE, Ivory Coast: Soldiers fired guns into the air to disperse protesters in Ivory Coast's second city on Friday as the defence minister arrived for talks with leaders of a military mutiny that paralysed much of the country last week.
The chaotic scenes forced organisers to move the venue of the negotiations, delaying efforts to resolve a bitter dispute over soldiers' pay and conditions that has festered for years in the world's top cocoa producer.
At least 100 soldiers who took part in last week's unrest poured out of their barracks in Bouake in pickups and trucks, confronting residents who had gathered to protest against the mutineers.
As locals ran to safety and shops shut, Defence Minister Alain-Richard Donwahi arrived by helicopter with other senior govenrment and military officials at around 1 p.m. (1300 GMT)
"As promised, we are back to continue the discussions with our men," Donwahi said. "This is our country, our security. Our men are also ready to move in the right direction."
The mutiny, which first erupted in Bouake subsided last week when the govenrment said it would accept many of the soldiers' demands.
But negotiators for the mutineers, most of them ex-rebel fighters integrated into the army, say they have yet to receive bonuses agreed with government last week. They had expected payments to begin on Monday.
"We expect the minister to tell us when they will start to pay the 12 million CFA franc ($19,278) bonus and when we'll have promotions and all our other demands," said one negotiator, who asked not to be named.
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.
The army remains a patchwork of former rebel fighters and troops who stayed loyal to the government during the 2002-2011 crisis. Divisions and parallel chains of command persist.
Donwahi was briefly trapped in Bouake last Saturday during earlier negotiations with the mutineers, when shooting erupted outside the house where the talks were taking place.
Streets emptied again on Friday. "I'm going home. With this shooting starting up again, I prefer to be at home," teacher Sylvain Kouame said.