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Ex-soldiers seize control of Ivory Coast's second city of Bouake

Demobilized soldiers seized Ivory Coast's second-largest city on Friday and gunfire erupted at a military camp in another town, according to military sources who said reinforcements had been sent to manage the uprising.

The unrest comes weeks after parliamentary elections that had been viewed as a further step towards cementing stability in the West African nation, which has emerged from a 2002-2011 political crisis as one of the continent's rising stars.

Heavy gunfire was heard from around 2 a.m. (0200 GMT) in Bouake - a city of around a half million inhabitants in the centre of the country - and sporadic shooting continued into the late morning.

Military sources said demobilized soldiers - mainly former rebels from the decade-long conflict - broke into police stations across the city, looting weapons before taking up positions at entry points into the city.

"The city is under the control of former (soldiers)," said an army officer, who spoke by telephone from Bouake. "There are many of them at the north and south entrances to the city. We are on alert and await instructions from the hierarchy."

He added that the second in command at the main military base in the city had been taken hostage by the ex-soldiers.

Shooting also broke out mid-morning at a military base in Daloa, the main trading hub in Ivory Coast's western cocoa belt. Residents said demobilized soldiers were behind the unrest.

Bouake was the seat of a rebellion that controlled the northern half of the world's top cocoa grower from 2002 until Ivory Coast was reunited following a civil war in 2011.

Residents stayed home and businesses remained closed on Friday morning. A helicopter from Ivory Coast's U.N. peacekeeping mission patrolled above the city, they said.

"The city is deserted. Men in balaklavas are patrolling the city on motorcycles or in cars. They aren't attacking residents ... They told us to stay at home," said Ami Soro, a teacher living in Bouake.

An officer at Ivory Coast's military headquarters in the commercial capital Abidjan said reinforcements had been sent to Bouake.

"The situation remains unstable and serious in Bouake ... Some civilians and even active-duty soldiers have started to rally to them," he said.

He added that, while the ex-soldiers had not yet stated their demands, it was believed that they were seeking payment of money they believed they were owed by the government.

A facility in Bouake housing around 200 former soldiers, who were initially brought into the army before later being demobilized, was closed in November.

There was no clear sign of a link between the Bouake events and outbreak of shooting at a military base in Daloa, but the fact the rebels were also demobilized soldiers could indicate the uprising was spreading.

"There is gunfire at the Second Battalion in Daloa. It's young demobilized soldiers," said a Daloa resident, speaking by telephone from a cocoa processing factory near the army camp.

A similar uprising occurred in 2014 when hundreds of soldiers barricaded roads in several cities and towns across the country demanding payment of back wages. The government agreed a financial settlement with the soldiers, who returned to barracks.

Concord Newsdesk

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