Security forces in Côte d’Ivoire opened fire on hundreds of protesters in south-western Gagnoa town Friday, killing an undisclosed number of people and wounding others, hospital sources said.
An opposition politician at the march estimated the number of dead at five but there was no independent confirmation.
The violence is the latest in a spate of demonstrations in the world’s top cocoa grower since President Laurent Gbagbo dissolved the government and the electoral commission a week ago, after a row over voter registration.
West Africa’s former economic hub is under increasing international pressure to end the row and restart an electoral process meant to end a crisis triggered by a 2002-2003 war.
The poll originally was supposed to take place in 2005 and public anger is boiling over at years of political instability and limbo while Ivorians wait for elections seen as the only way of drawing a line under their conflict.
“There are deaths but I cannot tell you the exact number as that is up to the authorities,” a hospital source told Reuters.
The acting hospital director said he was not authorised to give the death or injury toll because it was too sensitive.
Gagnoa’s main street was littered with stones and the ashes of burnt tyres after the protest. The town was deserted by late afternoon except for the police and gendarmerie.
Issa Deomande, who was at the march, said the protesters raised their hands at a roadblock to show they were unarmed.
“It was after that they fired tear gas, then bullets,” he said. “My friend caught a bullet and I haven’t seen him since. I even don’t know if he’s alive or dead.”
Alexi Godou, a member of presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara’s opposition Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party, told Reuters he counted five bodies at the morgue.
An official in Côte d’Ivoire’s military said two security agents were wounded after protesters pelted them with stones.
A Reuters reporter saw three gunshot victims being treated.
Gbagbo’s decision — taken after he accused electoral commission head Robert Mambe of illegally adding names to the electoral register to boost the opposition vote — is certain to push back the latest election time frame of early March.
In Washington, the top State Department diplomat for West Africa said Gbago’s decision flew in the face of what he called a “perfectly valid” deal aimed at paving the way for the vote.
“There was a clear path and yet President Gbagbo felt obliged, for whatever reason, to take another path,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William Fitzgerald told Reuters.
Fitzgerald said it was imperative “to get this transition back on track and to have elections as soon as possible”.
The killings by security forces are likely to escalate tensions that already are high. Opposition leaders have called for civil disobedience unless Gbagbo reinstates the electoral commission, but until now protests had been largely peaceful.
Madelaine Kouadio wept as she told how her 15-year-old son had been shot in back of the head.
“We took him to the morgue,” she said. “He wasn’t protesting. He was just outside to see what the commotion was.”
A coalition of opposition groups gathered in Abidjan on Friday night and held a minute of silence in honor of the dead. They urged Gbagbo to resign and for protests to continue.
“The [opposition] … calls upon Ivorians to mobilise and oppose by all necessary means the dictatorship of Laurent Gbagbo,” opposition leader Alphonse Djedje Mady said.
Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, a former rebel until a 2007 peace deal, is due to name a government on Saturday, although that could be delayed by political wrangling. It is not clear when or how a new electoral commission will be formed.
Rising tensions threaten to hurt a cocoa industry that supplies 40% of world demand, and could scupper an election the World Bank has said is needed for debt relief.
Cocoa futures on the ICE were flat on Friday as growing political tensions in Côte d’Ivoire helped offset the impact of a stronger dollar on commodities priced in it, dealers said. – Reuters