Boulevard revolt rids Ivory Coast of despot

People rise up to remove military leader in former French colony as 'Belgrade effect' emboldens the continent's reformers
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The Independent Online

Amid amazing scenes of soldiers shooting into crowds then laying down their weapons and helping the ones they had wounded, Ivory Coast's boulevard revolution last night appeared to have swung in the people's favour. But the whereabouts of the junta leader, General Robert Guei, were unknown and it was unclear who would lead the country after 24 hours of street battles which claimed at least 10 lives.

Amid amazing scenes of soldiers shooting into crowds then laying down their weapons and helping the ones they had wounded, Ivory Coast's boulevard revolution last night appeared to have swung in the people's favour. But the whereabouts of the junta leader, General Robert Guei, were unknown and it was unclear who would lead the country after 24 hours of street battles which claimed at least 10 lives.

Last night paramilitaries (gendarmes) who were among the first to back the people against the military regime secured the last strategic target - the presidential palace in the commercial capital Abidjan - after a gun and grenade battle with "red beret" militias loyal to General Guei. So calm was the mood that sentries were installed at the general's empty residence to prevent looting.

The remarkable people-led events, comparable to the unseating of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia earlier this month, unfolded after General Guei on Tuesday effectively annulled Sunday's presidential elections and declared himself the winner. The military leader who came to power in a Christmas coup last year had appeared to be losing the poll before he cancelled it.

Yesterday, his civilian challenger, Laurent Gbagbo, who challenged the annulment on Tuesday and called for his supporters to take to the streets, acted as though he was the rightful leader of the world's leading cocoa producer.

In a national broadcast yesterday, Mr Gbagbo paid tribute to "the armed forces and the police who decided to support the democratic process" and asked the electoral commission, dissolved on Tuesday by General Guei, to declare a result.

But Mr Gbagbo will now come under pressure from the international community, which condemned Sunday's elections as unfair before they even happened, to call a new poll. The regime permitted only the veteran socialist, General Guei and three other candidates to run, out of an initial 19. Less than 40 per cent of the population is said to have voted and yesterday supporters of Alassane Ouattara, one of the excluded candidates, staged a demonstration in Abidjan demanding new elections.

Sources said General Guei's wife and children fled to Benin yesterday and a former junta information minister said the leader himself had left too.

An infantry battalion commander at Akuedo barrackssaid the armed forces had switched their loyalty to "the people". Commander Gaodi Olata added: "The army, gendarmes and police are with the people. How can you keep power by the gun? It is wrong. We did not abandon Guei but we followed the truth. Gbagbo will be sworn in soon."

Observers in Abidjan yesterday said they had watched in stupefaction as soldiers loyal to the junta gradually changed sides as they saw the number of civilian protesters grow and barricades and fires in the boulevards of the city centre.

"All the protesters wanted was to get to the radio station," one witness said. "At first the soldiers resisted. They fired in the air and some fired into the crowd. But the soldiers could see they were being outnumbered and an order must have gone out that they should help the people. We saw them put away their rifles and carry the injured people away. It was extraordinary."

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