ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Troops were advancing toward Ivory Coast’s second largest city on Sunday, part of an operation the head of the army said was launched “to re-establish order” on the third day of a mutiny by soldiers across the country over bonus payments.
At least five people were shot and wounded in the city, Bouake, earlier in the day when soldiers broke up a march against the mutiny. One of three protesters shot and wounded by the mutineers on Saturday has died of his wounds.
Popular opposition to the revolt is gathering momentum.
“These acts of an extreme seriousness are contrary to the mission of protection assigned to the armed forces. As a result, a military operation is under way to re-establish order,” Military Chief of Staff General Sekou Toure said in a statement.
The government had until Sunday shied away from confronting the mutineers with force. But a large military convoy arrived in the town of Tiebissou, about 60 km (40 miles) south of Bouake, on Sunday afternoon, a witness said.
A soldier with the convoy, contacted by Reuters, said it was stopping only for a short time before continuing to Bouake.
A spokesman for the mutiny, Sergeant Seydou Kone, said: “We met with the soldiers in Tiebissou and they asked us to lay down our arms and surrender. We refused and we demand our money first ... We’re waiting for them.”
The uprising by the soldiers, most of them ex-rebel fighters who fought to bring President Alassane Ouattara to power, began in Bouake on Friday before quickly spreading to other cities and towns, mirroring a revolt by the same group in January.
After allowing traffic to circulate earlier in the day, the mutineers again closed off Bouake, which is on the main axis between the commercial capital Abidjan - one of the region’s largest ports - and landlocked neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso.
Ivory Coast has emerged as one of the world’s fastest growing economies following a decade-long political crisis ended by a 2011 civil war. But deep divisions persist, particularly in a military assembled from former rebel and loyalist combatants.
The 8,400 mutineers received 5 million CFA francs ($8,400) each in order to end the January revolt. But the government has struggled to pay remaining bonuses of 7 million CFA francs, with a budget hit by the collapse in the price of cocoa, Ivory Coast’s main export.
On Thursday, following a meeting with authorities in Abidjan, a spokesman for the group said they would drop demands for the remaining money.
But that decision was rejected by some of the soldiers.
“We just want our money. We’ll stay here until the president pays our money,” Kone said.
The defense minister has vowed not to negotiate with the renegade troops, however, and public anger at the mutineers is growing.
The soldiers used gunfire to break up a march against the mutiny in Bouake’s city center on Sunday morning.
“The population rose up, but the mutineers quickly dispersed the march with shots,” said Bouake resident Simon Guede. “Everything is closed.”
A witness saw five people who had been taken to the city’s main hospital with bullet wounds following the aborted march. Other protesters, who had been beaten, were also being treated.
Another protest was also broken up by the mutineers in the northern city of Korhogo on Sunday, participants said, though there were no immediate reports of casualties there.
Similar rallies and marches were held in the western cocoa hub of Daloa and in Abidjan on Saturday.
Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly; Editing by Louise Ireland