Fri, Mar 26, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Ivory Coast police shoot protester as marchers gather

REUTERS AND AP , ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST

Security forces in Ivory Coast shot dead at least one demonstrator yesterday as marchers gathered for a banned opposition protest against President Laurent Gbagbo in the main city, Abidjan, witnesses said.

The body of a man with gunshot wounds to the chest was lying on the ground in the suburb of Yopougon yesterday. People standing by the body said anti-riot police had earlier fired into a small gathering of opposition protesters.

"They arrived. They said, `go away, go away,' and then they fired into the crowd. They are stopping us from marching," said a man standing by the dead body, which had a T-shirt with "National Reconciliation" written on the front.

The march organizers and witnesses said two had died in the shooting and another two had been injured. There was no independent confirmation of the second death or the injuries.

Security forces had fired into the air and lobbed tear gas at hundreds of people in the northern suburb to break up crowds gathering for the march into the commercial capital's tank-guarded center.

Gbagbo's government, which has banned all demonstrations, accuses rebels who control the north of plotting a coup together with opposition parties -- charges both groups deny.

Authorities have stepped up security in Abidjan as a result of the planned march.

MI-24 helicopter gunships clattered overhead and groups of paramilitary and anti-riot police blasted tear gas into the streets.

The downtown business district, where the palace and key ministries are located, has been declared off-limits by presidential guards who've warned they would defend the area at all costs. It was quiet there yesterday morning.

In a bid to keep residents home, the government declared yesterday a public holiday and ordered all schools closed. The US Embassy warned of possible violence, and called on its citizens to stay home.

The march, called to press Gbagbo to fully implement a peace deal signed last year, would be the first large-scale protest against the government since the end of a nine-month civil war last year.

Ghana's President John Kufuor flew to Abidjan Wednesday in a last-minute bid to resolve the rising tensions, meeting with Gbagbo and opposition leaders. Kufuor came as head of the 15-country Economic Community of West African States, but his trip appeared to have no immediate impact.

"The march is still on," Bjedje Mady, a senior official of the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast said late Wednesday at the end of Kufuor's visit.

Ivory Coast has been divided between a rebel-held north and a loyalist south since the civil war broke out in September 2002.

A French-brokered peace agreement in January last year brought an end to fighting, and the war was officially declared over in July.

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