ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Armed men in black T-shirts attacked Ivory Coast military police near the state television headquarters Friday, sparking a two-hour battle that the defense minister said killed 18 people.
Military police guarding the station put down the attack, a journalist at state TV told The Associated Press. The assault was the latest in years of rebellions, military revolts and other violence following a 1999 coup in once-stable Ivory Coast.
In an address later Friday on state TV, Minister of Defense Rene Amani said “the situation is under control” and that civilians in Abidjan should “go about their affairs normally.”
“This situation, which is extremely serious, merits clarification,” Amani said. “To this end, an investigation will be directed that will permit us to illuminate what happened.”
A journalist said the attack was an attempt to take control of the TV station, a standard first step in uprisings in the troubled West African economic hub.
A civilian, Octave Bohui, told AP that he saw the bodies of five of the station’s military police guards being carried away. Amani said one army soldier was among the 18 people killed in the fight.
Pro-government militia said responsible
The heavily armed gunmen drove near the station 30 minutes after midnight in civilian sport utility vehicles and minibuses used for public transport, said a military police officer who was among those guarding the TV station. The clash lasted over two hours.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said the attackers wore black T-shirts inscribed with the word “Nindja” — the name of one of the pro-government militia groups that have formed since war broke out in September 2002.
They want the government to take a harder stance against rebels who control the northern half of the country.
Those militia groups, which have participated in several often-violent protests in Abidjan in the last year, have repeatedly insisted that they are unarmed.
A government minister said authorities had been warned of the assault ahead of time.
“We were on alert all night due to information of an imminent attack,” said Theodore Mel, a Cabinet minister in Ivory Coast’s power-sharing government.
The gunbattle occurred near the state TV headquarters, located in the Cocody residential area across a lagoon from downtown.
At midmorning Friday, extra security forces and armored personnel carriers were on patrol in downtown Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, where the state radio station is located.
The military police officer said another group of unidentified gunmen attacked the Agban military camp in Abidjan. Other authorities could not immediately verify that claim.
Country split in half
Ivory Coast remains unsettled after its latest violence, a nine-month civil war officially declared over in July. The country is split between rebel-held north and government-held south, and the internationally brokered power-sharing deal has yet to take hold.
The civil war began in September 2002 with a failed attempt to oust President Laurent Gbagbo.
The gunbattles came a week after government-loyal mobs led violent demonstrations at France’s main army base in Abidjan, calling for French peacekeepers to vacate a cease-fire line to allow renewed attacks on rebels.
About 4,000 French and 1,200 West African troops are in Ivory Coast to monitor a cease-fire line that separates the two sides.
Officials from Ivory Coast’s army and rebel movement were scheduled to meet Friday in Abidjan with peacekeepers to iron out details on a disarmament plan, slated to begin Saturday.
Soldiers stormed the state TV station in Cocody on Nov. 30, holding it briefly and broadcasting a message calling for renewed attacks on rebels.
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