Thousands of demonstrators blockaded parts of Ivory Coast in protest against President Laurent Gbagbo’s decision to dissolve the government and electoral commission, witnesses and protesters said.
Gbagbo’s decision after a spat with the electoral commission over voter registration is certain to delay yet again a presidential poll that was scheduled for early March.
Frustration is growing at years of delays to a vote meant to restore peace to West Africa’s former economic hub after a 2002-3 war divided it between Gbagbo’s government and rebels.
The opposition has called for big street protests, raising the spectre of violence in the world’s top cocoa grower, though protests have thus far remained largely peaceful.
In the main city of Abidjan, a protester seized and set fire to a bus belonging to a national transport company.
“A vandal amongst the bus passengers sprayed the bus with flammable liquid,” said Thomas Koffi, the transport manager.
“Ever since the president’s decision we’ve been confronted by these acts of vandalism.”
In the central towns of Daoukro, Dimbokro and M’Bahiakro, independent witnesses told Reuters by phone that about 1000 demonstrators had marched through each town.
Protesters said they had blocked routes and burned tyres.
Ivory Coast’s military chief General Philippe Mangou told journalists in the capital Yamoussoukro that security forces would defend the state against any civil unrest.
“We are here to defend the institutions of the republic; those acting against them will meet us in their path,” he said.
Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore, the mediator in Ivory Coast’s crisis, urged Gbagbo to re-launch the polls.
“(The facilitator would like) to encourage President Laurent Gbagbo to act quickly to re-launch the electoral process to preserve progress made so far and ensure it is completed,” he said in a rare statement in Ouagadougou.
In the town of Toumodi, about 45 km (28 miles) south of Yamoussoukro, 200 demonstrators, some in rags, torn shirts or lacking shoes, set up road blocks and chanted slogans.
“We’re sick of Gbagbo and his regime,” shouted Issouf Keita, 21, a mechanic. “We want a president, not a dictator.”
One smashed a police car’s windows and two were injured in a scuffle, but police said the protest was mostly peaceful.
The poll has been delayed since 2005. Prime Minister Guillaume Soro is expected to announce a government this week but it is not clear when an electoral commission will be named.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc urged a swift resolution on Tuesday.
The US State Department said it was concerned and said disbanding the commission was “particularly disappointing”.
Gbagbo had accused the electoral commission head of illegally registering voters loyal to the opposition.
Rising tensions threaten to disrupt a cocoa industry that supplies 40% of world demand, and could stop a vote the World Bank this month said was a condition of debt relief.
In a Reuters interview in London, the head of the London Club group of commercial creditors, Thierry Desjardins, said a lack of effective government in Ivory Coast could delay a restructuring of €2.2 billion of debt that was meant to be exchanged by April.
Despite the civil war and years of subsequent crisis, cocoa in Ivory Coast has not seriously been disrupted.