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FILE PHOTO: A mutinying soldier gestures as he stands guard at the checkpoint on the entrance to Bouake, Ivory Coast, May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Luc Gnago(reuters_tickers)
By Joe Bavier and Ange Aboa
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - When a rag-tag group of soldiers launched a mutiny in Ivory Coast earlier this month, it looked like they were doomed. A column of elite troops quickly descended to put the mutiny down. The rebels were running out of ammunition and the armouries had been locked.
Then, the phone rang.
According to one of the mutiny leaders, the caller, whose identity the mutineers declined to disclose, told them where they could find weapons: at the home of an aide to the parliament speaker.
The group initially feared a trap, but when they reached the location, they found dozens of crates of rifles, machineguns, grenade launchers and ammunition.
Freshly armed, the mutineers were able to hold their ground.
Swiftly, President Alassane Ouattara's forces sent in to crush the mutiny began falling apart, according to one Special Forces officer who was part of it. The column U-turned and headed back to Abidjan, and for a second time this year, mutineers had brought Ouattara's government to its knees.
The incident exposed the deep dysfunction and lawlessness now jeopardising Ivory Coast's recovery from a decade of turmoil and civil war.
The previously undisclosed phone call suggests powerful people were willing to help the mutineers. And the army, which still outgunned the rebels, was unwilling to follow orders to put the mutiny down.
"(General) Sekou Toure was giving orders and no one was listening," a regional security official told Reuters, referring to the military chief of staff. "What does that tell you? There's no control over the military."
"KNIFE EDGE MOMENT"
Ivory Coast, a former French colony known for decades as one of the most stable states in West Africa, is still recovering from a brief civil war fought after Ouattara won a disputed election in 2010 but incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down.
When Ouattara's backers supported by French troops finally arrested Gbagbo in 2011, the country emerged from the conflict swiftly, becoming Africa's fastest growing economy.
Investors duly poured in money and have so far tended to shrug off unrest -- including a similar army revolt in 2014 and an al Qaeda attack on a beach resort last year.
But behind the remarkably fast recovery, there is still a threat of more violence. A new election is due in 2020, and those who study the country say there is a growing risk it could unravel again.
"It's really a knife-edge moment," said Edward George, Head of Group Research at pan-African lender Ecobank. "It wouldn't take too much more to ... spook investors."
Ouattara has still had difficulty asserting his authority over the army, which was cobbled together in an uneasy merger of the northern New Forces rebels who supported him and the professional troops who had fought against him.
In January, 8,400 former rebels mutinied, demanding bonuses for having helped Ouattara to power. The unrest spread across the country and a panicked government paid 5 million CFA francs (6,569 pounds) to each of them to end it.
It promised another 7 million CFA francs apiece in monthly instalments -- at a cost of around $100 million -- but a drop in the price of its main export cocoa provoked a budget crunch.
Since February, according to several diplomatic sources, the government had been seeking a way out of the promise.
This month, it seemed to have had found one. On May 11, state TV broadcast a statement by a visibly nervous, beret-clad soldier identified as the mutineers' spokesman.
Named as Sergeant Fofana, he apologised to Ouattara, who was seated nearby, and said the troops had dropped their remaining demands for payments.
There was only one hitch: no one had told the mutineers.
"We never spoke about dropping the demand for money," said one of the mutiny leaders, who asked not be identified for fear of reprisals.
The next morning, gunfire was heard in cities and towns across the country. Roads were barricaded. In Abidjan, mutineers overran the army headquarters and defence ministry.
Toure, the chief of staff, announced an operation to "re-establish order" and a column of elite troops was deployed towards Bouake, heart of the mutiny.
"THEY WERE GOING TO KILL US"
In a roadside village south of Bouake the following day, a group of low-ranking soldiers sat down with the officers commanding the column. The officers told the soldiers that Ouattara no longer wanted discussions, that their mutiny had tarnished the country's name, and they must give up now or face the consequences, recalls one soldier present at the meeting.
"We knew if we backed down, they were going to kill us," the mutineer told Reuters.
It should have been easy for elite forces to put down the revolt. Diplomats said the government had anticipated a reaction after Fofana's statement and locked armouries at military bases.
But after the phone call led the mutineers to the secret stash of weapons, the mutiny spread, shutting down Ivory Coast's vital cocoa ports in Abidjan and San Pedro. With the chaos worsening, the government capitulated.
Authorities have not confirmed details of the agreement they reached to end the uprising, but mutiny participants were soon queuing up at banks in Bouake to withdraw 5 million CFA francs each. The mutineers say they each expect another 2 million CFA francs to be paid next month.
"This isn't just about cash. It's also about 2020," said Robert Besseling, executive director of risk advisory EXX Africa, referring to the election to succeed Ouattara, who is not permitted to stand for a third term. "I think over the next three years we'll see more outbreaks of this kind of unrest."
The mutineers all declined to name the person who told them about the weapons, but the home belonged to Souleymane Kamarate Kone, better known by his nom de guerre "Soul to Soul", the head of protocol for parliament speaker Guillaume Soro.
The former head of the pro-Ouattara rebellion, Soro is a contender to take over from the president but faces strong opposition from others in the ruling coalition.
Attempts to reach Kone for comment were unsuccessful. He is due to speak to gendarmes about the affair on Friday, according to a copy of a summons seen by Reuters.
Soro issued a statement saying he would not discuss the weapons found at the home of his aide: "Such issues fall under defence secrets. You can therefore understand that I won't allow myself to comment."
But the mutiny leaders say they were undoubtedly saved by the secret cache: "Without Soul to Soul's weapons we couldn't have held out if they attacked," said one.
"We could have hidden and fought with guerrilla tactics but not for long. Yes, it saved us."
(Editing by Tim Cocks and Peter Graff)