The military coup d'etat in Ivory Coast appeared to solidify today as the elected president abandoned his pleas for public resistance and made preparations instead to flee the West African nation for France.
President Henri Konan Bedie, who was deposed by a former army chief of staff on Friday, spent Christmas day at a French military base near Abidjan's Houphouet-Boigny International Airport, named for the founding president who ushered Bedie to power in 1993. Bedie was said to be flying soon to a French refuge, and officers who had been loyal to him appeared on television to express support for the coup leaders.
"If you had a country and all you do is loot the country, this is what happens," said Gen. Robert Guei, the self-appointed president of the freshly formed, all-military National Committee of Public Salvation.
Abidjan remained tense, its streets deserted but for soldiers looting stores and driving around in stolen cars. France, which has 550 troops stationed in the country, sent reinforcements to protect its nationals in the former colony.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman said Americans were being advised to remain indoors even during daylight hours, and Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised British nationals via the BBC to "keep their heads well down."
A dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed for a second night.
Guei, who announced the coup on state television Friday, appeared in a flurry of broadcasts today, vowing to restore order and democracy. The nine-man junta ordered back to barracks the soldiers whose mutiny for back pay and privileges sparked the takeover but who have spent much of the last three days looting shops in the commercial capital, Abidjan, and firing into the air.
Guei also spoke with foreign diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador, and repeated in private a public promise to restore democracy. Denying the takeover was a coup, Guei told reporters that the junta acted to sweep aside a ruler who had squelched opposition and looted public coffers. One day after suspending the country's constitution, parliament and courts, Guei vowed "to create the necessary conditions for a real democracy with a view to holding fair and transparent elections." Guei did not commit, however, to abide by the previous schedule for presidential elections in October 2000.
The coup was denounced by an array of Western and African countries, including Nigeria and South Africa. The State Department issued a condemnation, but U.S. officials noted the assurances of the new military rulers for a swift return to democracy.
Ivory Coast, a country of 16 million, has been a bastion of relative stability in West Africa. It is a region in which a depressing list of smaller countries--including Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau--have been torn apart by wars and the largest and richest country, Nigeria, only this year found its way back to civilian rule.
In such company, peaceful, relatively prosperous Ivory Coast has stood apart. It is a transportation hub and preferred base for foreign companies doing business in the region. "We don't want to see that country lose that aura," said a State Department official. "I think it would have a very negative effect not only on Cote d'Ivoire, but also on the region," he said, referring to the country as it is known officially, by its French name.
Bedie, who became president in 1993 after the death of his predecessor and won office in 1995 elections after disqualifying his chief opponent, prepared to depart amid few signs he would be missed. Poor residents of Abidjan exulted at news of the overthrow and the Reuters news agency reported that the office of a mobile phone company with ties to Bedie had been burned.
Guei, whom Bedie tried to dismiss Friday as a "nitwit," noted the "demonstration of joy" with satisfaction.
The announced members of the ruling committee ranged in rank from a former security minister to a chief petty officer. But vowing that the new government would come from a "wide consensus," Guei also promised to consult early in the week with prominent members of the opposition whom Bedie's ruling party had worked hard to suppress--including former prime minister Alassane Ouattara, of the Rally of Republicans, and Popular Front leader Laurent Gbagbo.
CAPTION: A man in Abidjan pleads for mercy with soldiers who accused him of looting in wake of Friday's coup.
CAPTION: Gen. Robert Guei, left, Ivory Coast's new military ruler, makes the rounds at an army camp.