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Ivory Coast Junta Leader Flees

October 25, 2000

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ Junta leader Gen. Robert Guei was forced from power Wednesday, officials said, as his security forces turned against him and joined thousands of demonstrators backing opposition leader Laurent Gbagbo.

Guei, who on Tuesday declared himself the winner of Sunday’s presidential election, fled late Wednesday morning for Cotonou in nearby Benin, said Guei’s former information minister Henri Cesar Sama. His exact whereabouts could not be confirmed.

Later Wednesday, Gbagbo was introduced on state television as ``president.″

Crowds of protesters exploded in celebration, beating drums and dancing in the streets of Abidjan and the western city of Gagnoa, a Gbagbo stronghold.

Praising his supporters, Gbagbo thanked them for protesting Guei’s ``electoral coup d’etat.″ He said he would be forming a cabinet shortly.

``I pay particular homage to those who died in the cause of this,″ Gbagbo said. ``We will give them a funeral befitting their courage.″

A second day of violence broke out before dawn Wednesday in Ivory Coast, once considered an oasis of calm in volatile West Africa.

Disgruntled soldiers attacked Guei loyalists at a munitions depot at the main military base in Abidjan, soldiers said. At least one mutineer was killed, they said.

Later, thousands of Gbagbo backers swarmed Abidjan, setting up barricades, lighting bonfires and screaming for Guei’s resignation. Downtown, waves of protesters advanced on soldiers who fired shots into the air and beat them down.

``We will fight until Guei is out,″ protesters at one junction chanted before fleeing gunfire.

At least two people were killed and four others injured Wednesday, witnesses said.

Airport officials in Cotonou, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Guei was there. But soldiers and diplomats said his exact whereabouts were unclear, and said it was possible he was still in Abidjan.

As the protests swelled, soldiers defected to join them, witnesses said. Senior junta member Capt. Saint Cyr Djikalou was among those to turn against Guei, said Sama, who also defected.

``We are taking control as I speak,″ Sama said. Pro-Gbagbo soldiers were trying to persuade remaining junta forces to put down their arms, he said.

By midday, demonstrators had overrun broadcast facilities for state radio and television, and thousands more were rallying outside broadcast offices downtown, witnesses said. International radio stations found their signals blocked.

``With Gbagbo, we have hope for the future,″ said protester Koffi Nguessan, a university economics professor.

Protests first broke out Tuesday when Guei dismissed the electoral commission overseeing the vote and declared himself the winner. He appeared on state-run television to thank Ivorians who he said ``like one man, in a great wave of dignity and solidarity, have just taken me to the head of the country.″

Gbagbo then called on his supporters to take to the streets. Faces blackened and hair strewn with leaves in traditional symbols of war, his backers marched toward the barricaded government offices before being stopped by soldiers who fired machine guns and tear gas.

Nine people were killed and 13 badly injured in clashes in Abidjan on Tuesday, said Freedom Neruda, an official with Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front.

The figures could not be confirmed, but witnesses said two died in violence Tuesday.

The junta declared a state of emergency and instituted a nighttime curfew until Saturday.

Vote counting had gone slowly from the start, and public tabulations ended Monday after only a fraction of the votes had been counted, with Gbagbo leading.

Gbagbo claimed victory with 59.6 percent of the vote, compared to 32.9 percent for Guei.

But Tuesday, after the elections commission was dissolved, Daniel Bamba Sheik, a senior Interior Ministry official, said Guei won in the final tally with 52.7 percent of the vote to Gbagbo’s 41 percent.

Neither claim could be independently verified.

Guei, who came to power in a December coup that was Ivory Coast’s first military takeover, had promised a return to civilian rule with the elections.

But the vote was plagued by controversy from the start. The nation’s two largest political parties boycotted after their leaders were barred from running by the Supreme Court.

Gbagbo, a history professor and trade unionist who ran unsuccessfully for president in the country’s first multiparty elections in 1990, was the only political heavyweight allowed to run.

Update hourly