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Protesters Block Streets in Ivory Coast Over Toxic Waste Scandal

Hundreds of angry protesters have blocked main roads in Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan, over the government's handling of a toxic waste scandal. Thousands say they are suffering from health problems linked to harmful chemicals in the city's landfills, as local hospitals try to cope with a rising number of patients.

Protests that began several days ago near the contaminated landfills have spread to some of the principle arteries of Ivory Coast's largest city. Hundreds of angry protesters near the national television and radio headquarters manned improvised roadblocks, as riot police waited in trucks nearby.

Officials made appeals on television and radio throughout the morning, asking that free circulation be given to medical personnel.

George Rajis was on his way to work in Abidjan when he came across the demonstrations.

"They told me that they dropped toxic waste, and that there are people dying. So that is why the population came out, and they are protesting that the government should do something about the whole thing," he said.

A ship owned by the Dutch company Trafigura Beheer BV is being accused of offloading tons of toxic chemicals two weeks ago in Abidjan that later found their way into local landfills.

Nearby residents complained of the smell. And local press began reporting health problems among those living near the contaminated sites last week.

The company, which says the ships cargo contained a mixture of gasoline and sulfur, with an added concentration of sulfuric products, said in a statement that it is very concerned that the chemicals were not disposed of properly.

Eric Meresso lives near one of the landfills and went to a special treatment center at the university hospital in the Cocody neighborhood of Abidjan.

"I am feeling very bad in my throat," he said. "I have headaches, and I cannot breathe properly. And I have another disease on my skin."

Hospitals have already treated hundreds of people suffering mainly from respiratory and digestive problems. Local media have reported that several people have died from illnesses related to the toxic waste.

Meresso says he blames the government.

"I think that the authorities are to be blamed, because they did not take care of the population," he said. "They had to take care of us, but there is negligence. I blame the authorities for this."

Ivory Coast's Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny was holding an emergency meeting of his government Wednesday in the administrative capital, Yamoussoukro. The meeting is intended to specifically treat the subject of the toxic waste.