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Ivory Coast Junta Leader Flees

October 25, 2000 GMT

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ Junta leader Gen. Robert Guei fled on Wednesday, as many of his security forces turned against him and joined thousands of demonstrators swarming the streets to protest his claim to have won presidential elections, soldiers said.

Laurent Gbagbo, the opposition leader who also claimed to have won Sunday’s presidential vote, addressed hundreds of cheering supporters outside his campaign headquarters in suburban Abidjan.

He thanked them for opposing what he called Guei’s ``electoral coup d’etat.″

``I thank you for responding massively to this appeal. You went out in the hundreds of thousands. I pay particular homage to those who died in the cause of this. We will give them a funeral befitting their courage,″ he said.

The crowd cheered when truckloads of pro-Gbagbo police and military drove into the compound.

Guei had on Tuesday declared himself the victor in Sunday’s presidential elections. Until Guei took power in a Dec. 24 coup d’etat, Ivory Coast was known as an oasis of calm in volatile West Africa.

Mutinous soldiers battled government troops at a military base Wednesday and bloody street protests had resumed for a second day.

Before dawn, disgruntled soldiers attacked a munitions depot at the main military base in Abidjan, known as Akouedo, soldiers at the base said. Guei loyalists fought off at least four armored vehicles full of mutineers, they said. At least one mutineer was killed, the soldiers said.

``There has been an attack but it has failed,″ said the base commander army Maj. Pierre Oualata. ``It’s over.″

Hours later, protests resumed in Ivorian cities, including downtown Abidjan near the presidential palace. In Abidjan suburbs, youths set bonfires of tires and garbage. Downtown, thousands of protesters advanced on soldiers who fired shots above their heads and in some case beat protesters with sticks and rifle butts.

``We will fight until Guei is out,″ protesters at one junction in the Riviera suburb chanted before running from a burst of gunfire.

Sama said anti-Guei soldiers had captured the television and radio stations, although this could not be independently confirmed. State television remained off the air and the radio station played recorded music. International radio stations found their signals blocked Wednesday.

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Sama said another senior junta member, Capt. Saint Cyr Djikalou, had also defected.

Witnesses reported seeing paramilitary police escorting mobs of protesters Wednesday in Abidjan and the western town of Gagnoa, a Gbagbo stronghold.

Demonstrators, with blackened faces and leaves in their hair as traditional war symbols, marched toward barricaded government offices Tuesday before they were met by soldiers firing machine guns and tear gas.

Freedom Neruda, an official with Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front, said nine people were killed in Abidjan in various clashes Tuesday and 13 were badly injured. Those figures could not be confirmed.

Witnesses said a body was found after soldiers in a moving truck fired three times into a crowd in the Abidjan suburb of Cocody.

Thousands of Gbagbo’s supporters also filled the streets in Gagnoa, where demonstrators burned and looted the homes of the junta leaders’ local campaign manager and a former government minister.

Guei dissolved the elections commission, a move that Daniel Bamba Sheik, a senior Interior Ministry official, blamed on massive fraud and the inability of electoral officials. By the time vote-counting was interrupted on Monday, the commission had shown Gbagbo with a slight edge.

Bamba Sheik said that in the final tally Guei took 52.72 percent to 41.02 for Gbagbo (pronounced BAHG-bo). Three lesser known candidates shared the remaining votes.

Gbagbo, however, declared he had 59.58 percent of the vote, compared to 32.91 percent for Guei.

Neither claim could be independently verified.

Guei later went 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.″

Instability since Guei’s coup has battered the economy and frightened Ivorians. Guei had promised the elections would mark a return to civilian rule.

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 was the only political heavyweight allowed to run.