Ousted president flees after Ivory Coast coup

THE OUSTED Ivory Coast president, Henri Konan Bedie, fled to Togo yesterday after a chaotic but largely bloodless Christmas coup that took the West African nation - and the world - by surprise.

The deposed president spent the weekend under French protection at the former colonial power's Port Bouet military base near the international airport at Abidjan, the Ivorian commercial capital. In Paris, the foreign ministry said French forces flew him to Lome, Togo, "in security and dignity".

Mr Bedie, 65, was accompanied by a dozen members of his family and close associates but left the former prime minister, Daniel Kablan Duncan, and the defence minister, Vincent Bandama N'Gatta, behind under French protection. Several former ministers are believed to be still held by the military. Other political leaders have been ordered to stay in the country "to account" for the former government's rule.

The Ivory Coast now appears solidly in the hands of its new military leader, General Robert Guei, after Mr Bedie's security heads agreed to work with him "in the interests of the nation". The general summoned senior government figures to a meeting at military headquarters yesterday afternoon "to make contact".

Paris reportedly became convinced of Mr Bedie's inability to wrest power back from the military when Commander Severin Kouame Konan, head of the gendarmerie upon whom the president relied for security, refused to order his men to kill their mutinous "Ivorian brothers".

The country's constitution, courts and parliament have been suspended, and General Guei - a former army chief who was axed by Mr Bedie amid allegations of a coup plot before turbulent 1995 presidential elections - is heading a hastily convened National Public Salvation Committee. The committee has pledged to ensure the security of Ivory Coast property and people, to restore the authority of the state, to create conditions for "real democracy" and fair elections and to consult on a new government.

But Mr Guei is under pressure from a world uniting in opposition to the coup, which has been condemned by Western powers - including Britain - the UN, the Organisation of African Unity and the continent's two major powers, Nigeria and South Africa.

They have called for the immediate reinstatement of president Bedie and are threatening to isolate the Ivory Coast. Western diplomats are taking General Guei's democratic promises with a pinch of salt, noting his failure to set a timetable for elections.

Already, the general has clashed with France, which sent 40 soldiers to Abidjan on Saturday - to bolster more than 500 marines it has stationed in the country - in case it needs to evacuate up to 30,000 of its nationals living there. General Guei is opposing the entry of more French troops.

Relative calm has been restored to Abidjan, which collapsed into anarchy on Thursday when soldiers demanding outstanding pay rampaged through the city, shooting into the air, taking control of the airport and radio and television headquarters, and joining civilians in an orgy of looting. While Mr Bedie called uselessly on Christmas Eve for Ivorians to resist the mutineers, the man he called a "nitwit" was declaring himself the new president.

The soldiers seem to have responded to an order by the committee to rejoin their units. City residents were back on the streets yesterday, public transport was operating and stores were reopening. Soldiers began acting against looters, "roughing up" or arresting those they came across. There were unconfirmed reports of two looters being shot dead.