Cote d’Ivoire’s former army spokesman was beaten up and a senior officer died after both men were detained and questioned by the presidential guard for dining at the French ambassador’s residence without permission, officials said on Monday.
But diplomats based in war-torn Cote d'Ivoire denied suggestions that the incident, which took place last Tuesday, pointed to growing trouble within the armed forces of President Laurent Gbagbo.
They noted that the arrest of three senior army officers, one of whom later died in hospital of undisclosed causes, came as Gbagbo gave the army a bigger say in the government-controlled southern half of Cote d'Ivoire.
At the end of June, Gbagbo deployed special military units to help control violent crime in the capital Abidjan. He also put the volatile west of the country under military government after more than 100 people were killed in a series of ethnic killings near the town of Duekoue.
Defence Minister Rene Amani also denied that cracks were appearing within the military establishment. “Our army is made up of all of the country’s peoples and has a fragile cohesion, but one that does exist,” he told IRIN. “The army is not divided and I am doing all I can to make sure it doesn’t split up.”
Cote d’Ivoire has been split into a loyalist south and rebel-held north since a failed coup in September 2002 plunged the country into civil war. One of the triggers of the conflict was a division between northerners and southerners in the army.
Amani confirmed that Lieutenant-Colonel Jules Yao Yao, who was sacked as armed forces spokesman on 23 June, had been roughed up by troops to the extent that he required stitches after being arrested on his departure from the French ambassador’s residence on the night of 28 June.
“This is unacceptable,” he said. “We are going to restore order.”
Yao Yao was detained on the orders of armed forces chief of staff General Philippe Mangou, along with retired General Laurent M’Bahia Kouadio and Colonel Desire Bakassa-Traore, who had attended the same dinner.
Mangou said later on state television that the retired general was allowed to go home due to his age, but the two colonels were interrogated before being released.
Mangou added that Bakassa, who was in charge of the National Office of Civil Protection, went into hospital for treatment and died shortly afterwards in the early hours of Sunday.
Relations between Cote d'Ivoire and France have been strained since French peacekeeping forces disabled the government's air force on the ground in November after it launched a series of bombing raids against the rebel-held north in contravention of a ceasefire. Nine French troops were killed in one such raid.
Since then, unauthorised fraternization between government officers and French officials has been regarded with suspicion and displeasure by the presidency.
Mangou said that when he met the two colonels to upbraid them for attending the French reception, Yao Yao informed him that he had been beaten up during his interrogation but Bakassa insisted that he had not been harmed.
“His death was not linked to his arrest,” Mangou said. “He told me that he was ill.”
An unsigned letter purporting to come from a group of senior army officers was sent to the media on Monday denouncing the incident, saying “it risks undermining the cohesion of the army.”
But several western diplomats queried the legitimacy of the document.
“There’re so many rumours here, and in a crisis situation someone’s always going to be trying to manipulate someone else,” said one diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous.
The document sharply criticised Gbagbo for appointing a military governor in the volatile “wild West” of Cote d’Ivoire following the ethnic killings in Duekoue.
That upsurge of violence contributed towards a further delay in plans to disarm both the rebels and pro-government militias ahead of presidential elections planned for 30 October.
The peace process inched forward last week in Pretoria when all sides to the conflict set a new timeline for disarmament in an agreement brokered by South African President and African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki.
But some diplomats remain sceptical that disarmament will go ahead in time for the poll to take place on schedule.
“Both sides are toughening their positions,” said a second diplomat who asked not to be named.
Over the weekend, Gbagbo implemented previously announced plans to improve security in the main city of Abidjan by dividing it into five zones, each to be patrolled by a rapid intervention force.
The security operation in the capital has been placed under the command of Colonel Guiai Bi Poin, an army officer who confronted a unit of French troops near the presidential palace in Abidjan last November along with several thousand anti-French demonstrators. The French troops eventually opened fire on the demonstrators, killing several of them
“What we are seeing here is Gbagbo taking things in hand and tightening security,” said the second diplomat.