Soldiers Strike In Côte D’Ivoire.

By Tamasin Ford, BBC News, Abidjan (C:I)….

Ivory Coast’s Interior Minister, Hamed Bakayoko, has promised the government will meet demands for back-pay by thousands of protesting soldiers.

He made the promise in a television statement on Tuesday night after soldiers blocked roads in the country’s main cities in protests.

Mr Bakayoko also said soldiers would not face sanctions for protesting.The payments are due to about 9,000 former rebel fighters who were later integrated into the army. The fighters had been part of forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, who took office as president in 2011, ending a civil war.

Earlier on Tuesday, Defence Minister Paul Koffi Koffi ordered the soldiers to return to barracks after they blocked roads in the main city Abidjan and the second city Bouaké. By Wednesday morning soldiers had returned to their bases in the cities of Abidjan, Bouake and Korhogo, reopening several key routes to traffic, reports BBC Ivory Coast correspondent Tamasin Ford.

It was the biggest protest involving the Ivorian military since President Ouattara took office.

The fact that Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko appeared on national television to say the president was unhappy this situation had not been sorted out sooner suggests Alassane Ouattara was pretty angry. Soldiers’ frustration over pay has been rumbling on for years and it is embarrassing for the government it got this far.

The Ouagadougou Peace Accord in 2007 agreed to integrate the rebels, who were fighting against then-President Laurent Gbagbo, into the army. However, between 2009 and 2011 they were never paid. As well as issues over benefits and health insurance, this has been the crux of the protests.

Ivory Coast is still recovering from the civil war that broke out after the 2010 elections and the last thing the country needs is more instability, which is probably why the government bowed to soldiers’ demands so quickly.

Mr Ouattara has been praised for the country’s remarkable economic development, but he has also been criticised for not doing enough to mend political and ethnic divisions. Many see these protests as evidence of the government’s lack of focus on reconciliation.

Bouake is a stronghold of the president, and the protest there suggested he may be losing the confidence of some loyalists, correspondents say.

On Tuesday, soldiers sealed off roads around the offices of the national radio and television station in the city, said a witness, who spoke to the BBC on condition of anonymity. The protest forced shops and banks in the city to close.

In Abidjan, soldiers demonstrated near an army base in the neighbourhood of Abobo, using tyres and vehicles to block the road. Shops were closed. There were also protests in three other cities, including Daloa, a hub of Ivory Coast’s cocoa industry, according to Reuters.

Reuters said Mr Koffi acknowledged that the government had agreed to pay them housing allowances, overdue travel stipends and to allocate money for soldiers’ health care.

Mr Ouattara took power in 2011 after his then rebel forces, backed by UN and French troops, captured his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo. Mr Gbagbo had refused to step down despite the UN declaring Mr Ouattara the winner of presidential elections the previous year. About 3,000 people were killed in the conflict between the two sides.

Mr Gbagbo is in the custody of the International Criminal Court. He is due to go on trial next year on charges of crimes against humanity, which he denies.