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Ivory Coast Tightens Security After Overnight Attacks

  • Anne Look

Ivorian soldiers stand guard at the Azito thermal power plant in the Yopougon district of western Abidjan, October 15, 2012.

Ivorian soldiers stand guard at the Azito thermal power plant in the Yopougon district of western Abidjan, October 15, 2012.

Ivory Coast's government said it is reinforcing security after thwarting what authorities said appeared to have been coordinated attacks, Sunday night and early Monday, on military and police installations and a power plant in and around the commercial capital, Abidjan.

Unidentified gunmen clashed with Ivorian security forces late Sunday night in the southeastern town of Bouana, just 60 kilometers outside Abidjan, as they tried to steal weapons from police and military stations. A few hours later, gunmen dressed in military uniforms briefly seized control of the Azito electricity plant in Abidjan, damaging one of its turbines.

Defense Minister Paul Koffi Koffi went on state television Monday night to reassure the population. The situation, he said, is now "under control."

He said they took nine individuals into custody in connection with the attacks: two civilian policemen, two military policemen, three sailors and two civilians. He said they wore military uniforms and were able to disarm the security forces standing guard at these facilities who mistook them for friends. He said the search continues and the government will be reinforcing security at "strategic sites."

There are several theories as to who and what are behind the wave of often deadly attacks that began in August.

Some said failed disarmament following two civil wars and ten years of de-facto division have fed criminality. Others point to discontented members of the security forces, in particular the new and still relatively disorganized national army that includes former rebel fighters who fought on behalf of current president Alassane Ouattara in last year's conflict.

The government blames the violence on loyalists of former president Laurent Gbagbo who lost a November 2010 presidential election but refused to step down, reigniting a civil war that killed 3,000 people.

Mr. Gbagbo's political party, now the lead opposition party, the Ivorian Popular Front, or FPI, says the government is using the violence as a pretext to mount a witch hunt against its opponents.

The party's number two, Laurent Akoun, is currently serving a six-month prison sentence for "disruption of public order" for reportedly calling for civil unrest during a public meeting.

The party's interim Secretary-General, Dr. Kodjo Richard, said arrests of its members are aimed at intimidating and weakening the party.

He said the FPI is a political party, not a military force. He said they have always sought power through democratic means. He said what is going on in the country, the attacks on the military, have nothing to do with them.

However, several elite members of the Gbagbo camp fled into neighboring countries after the conflict, primarily to Ghana. Those pro-Gbagbo exiles are accused of hiring mercenaries, funding deadly cross-border raids against civilians in western Ivory Coast and masterminding a plot to overthrow the Ouattara government.

Ivory Coast only recently re-opened its land border with Ghana after shutting it down for two weeks following raids that it said had been launched from Ghanian soil.

Analysts said it is unlikely that diehard Gbagbo supporters, in exile currently, have the means to actually topple the Ouattara government by force.

However, analysts also said that the ongoing attacks, as well as subsequent accusations and government crackdowns, are undermining efforts to repair years of division.

Dialogue between the government and the opposition has repeatedly stalled out. So far, only members of the Gbagbo camp have been arrested and charged for war crimes and abuses reportedly committed by both sides during the conflict. The Ouattara government is repeatedly accused of "victor's justice."

The United Nations special envoy to Ivory Coast on human rights, Doudou Diene, said an end to impunity, as well as support for political diversity, are fundamental to restoring security.

He said Ivory Coast has already lived the consequences of its deep political divisions. He said political parties must be able to express themselves within a legal, democratic framework to avoid being tempted to resort to other, less than legal, means.