Ivory Coast in Turmoil

Soldiers shot protesters in Ivory Coast today when tens of thousands of marchers denouncing military ruler General Robert Guei converged on the center of the main city, Abidjan.

Reporters saw at least six supporters of socialist leader Laurent Gbagbo with bullet wounds, some serious. Protesters said some marchers had been shot dead.

In a separate development, a leading member of Guei’s junta, Communication Minister Henri Sama, resigned saying Gbagbo had won Sunday’s presidential election and urging Guei “to spare Ivory Coast a bloodbath” and step down.

“The truth is Gbagbo won the election. I am not a cheat,” Sama said, adding that he had asked a fellow junta member to arrest Guei, who was at the military airport.

The protests, which began on Tuesday after the West African country’s army rulers declared Guei winner of the poll, have affected towns nationwide.

Aides of Gbagbo, who accused Guei of robbing him of victory and proclaimed himself head of state, said that 11 people had been killed on Tuesday, when soldiers fired in the air and used tear gas, whips and clubs to disperse marchers.

Paramilitary gendarmes and some soldiers rallied to the protest movement today, some linking up with marchers with armored vehicles.

Belgrade-Style Protests

The marchers, who chanted “We don’t want Guei,” “Guei thief” and “Gbagbo president,” massed outside the state radio headquarters after most soldiers guarding it pulled back to the presidential palace in vehicles, firing as they went.

Witnesses said that the marchers were negotiating with soldiers still inside.

Protesters said that it was a similar story at the state television station in the plush Cocody district of the city.

Before the election, Gbagbo had threatened Belgrade-style popular protests if he was cheated of victory.

Earlier, rival army factions fought an inconclusive night battle at the key military base of Akouedo, where the country’s first coup began last December.

The battle at Akouedo, on the outskirts of Abidjan, involved tanks and lasted about two hours, a source close to Gbagbo said.

At the time, the country was under an overnight curfew, which ended at dawn.

Keeping Up the Pressure

Guei, 59, called Sunday’s presidential election and a parliamentary election set for December 10 to return the country to constitutional rule following the coup.

His decision to stand himself followed in the footsteps of successive African leaders who came to power in a coup and went on to seek legitimacy through the ballot box.

“We will keep up the pressure,” Abou Drahamane Sangare, deputy leader of Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), said.

Gbagbo, 55, led the fight that brought multi-party politics to the world’s top cocoa producer in 1990.

Port and industry sources in the western town of San Pedro, which ships about half of the country’s cocoa, said all main roads therehad been blocked by protesters on Tuesday. Cocoa prices jumped on the news.

Guei, who is technically retired from the army, dissolved the National Electoral Commission on Tuesday.

The Interior Ministry declared him winner of the election with 52.72 percent of votes cast. It credited Gbagbo, one of four civilians in the race, with 41.02 percent and accused unnamed political parties of cheating in the poll.

Gbagbo’s party said that he had won the election, taking 59.58 percent of votes cast, on the basis of results with most votes counted, against 32.91 percent for Guei.

Gbagbo and Guei were the only serious contenders in the poll after the supreme court barred former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara and other political heavyweights from running under a new constitution approved in a July referendum.

With additional reporting from Vincent t’Sas, Marc Koffi, Silvia Aloisi and Alan Raybould.