ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Gunmen killed five soldiers and seized weapons in a pre-dawn raid on an army camp in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital Abidjan on Monday, military officials said, heightening fears of renewed instability in the world’s top cocoa-growing country.
The West African state, where five soldiers were killed in a similar attack on a police station and army roadblock in another part of Abidjan only the day before, is emerging from years of political turmoil but remains awash with illegal weapons.
A group of unidentified heavily armed men in civilian clothes stormed the army camp in the Akouedo neighborhood, on the eastern edge of the city, at around 3:30 a.m., an officer present at the base told Reuters.
Fighting lasted nearly three hours before the army took back control of the area.
“They attacked the two entrances to the camp simultaneously and opened fire. We’ve counted five dead on our side and one among the assailants,” said Colonel Cherif Moussa, the Ivorian army’s deputy chief of staff.
Reuters witnesses saw the bodies of four soldiers who had been shot in an office just inside the camp entrance. Another lay on the ground outside and appeared to have been beaten to death.
Five others were wounded in the gun battle, two seriously, the defense minister said. One soldier remained unaccounted for.
Dozens of government soldiers and five armored vehicles carrying peacekeepers from Ivory Coast’s United Nations mission, UNOCI, were positioned near the entrances to the compound on Monday morning. Bullet holes covered the camp’s exterior walls.
“There were many of them and they attacked the camp from all sides,” Corporal Ousmane Kone, who took part in the fighting, said. “They took lots of weapons, loaded them in a truck and drove off with them. They took AK-47s (automatic rifles), machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades,” he said.
Guillaume Soro, president of the Ivory Coast parliament, said the situation was back under control and the army was pursuing the attackers. “The prompt reaction of our forces put down the attack ... Our soldiers are currently carrying out clean-up operations,” he said in a statement posted on Twitter.
Heavily armed soldiers patrolled the streets in Abidjan’s eastern neighborhoods in the late morning. Shops in the area closed their doors and few vehicles circulated.
The West African nation has sought to re-establish normalcy after a decade of political deadlock and civil unrest that ended with a brief civil war in 2011 that killed around 3,000 people.
The conflict erupted after then-President Laurent Gbagbo refused to admit defeat to rival Alassane Ouattara in late 2010 election. Gbagbo, who was captured during the fighting, is now awaiting trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague on war crimes charges.
While Ouattara, now president, has managed to improve security in most of the country, efforts to remove from circulation thousands of weapons left over from the conflict have faltered and sporadic violence persists.
“Of course there are some remaining pockets of insecurity, but they are the object of our total attention,” Ouattara said in a televised address Monday night, on the eve of Ivory Coast’s independence day celebrations.
“I have given the order to fight without mercy against those whose objective is to create a psychosis and feeling of insecurity in the country...We want security to reign everywhere.”
There has been an escalation in armed attacks in recent months, mainly in the country’s cocoa-rich west, long the scene of ethnic violence and score-settling linked to disputes over land ownership.
At least five soldiers were killed when gunmen fired on a police station and army roadblock on Sunday in Abidjan’s Yopougon neighborhood, a former Gbagbo bastion.
More than 20 people, including seven U.N. peacekeepers, were killed in raids along Ivory Coast’s border with Liberia in June in what Ivorian authorities said were cross-border incursions by pro-Gbagbo militias and Liberian mercenaries.
Additional reporting and writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by David Lewis and Michael Roddy