Ivory Coast Government Quits over Dumped Toxic Waste
YAMOUSSOUKRO/ABIDJAN Ivory Coast's government resigned on Wednesday after toxic waste dumped around the main city Abidjan killed three people, made 1,500 ill and triggered street protests.
Interim Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny offered the resignation of his cabinet to President Laurent Gbagbo during an emergency meeting in the political capital Yamoussoukro which had been meant to work out a response to the crisis.
"I accept the resignation of your government but I ask you to manage current business and ask for your presence at the presidential palace tomorrow to form a new government," Gbagbo told Banny in a meeting at which a Reuters reporter was present.
"At whatever level it may be ... those who are responsible must be hunted down and sanctioned. We have to know the nature of the damage. We cannot sit back and cross our arms," he said.
Authorities said the pungent waste which contained hydrogen sulphide was unloaded from a Panamanian-registered ship at Abidjan port on Aug. 19 and then dumped in at least eight sites around the densely populated lagoon-side city.
Hundreds of residents have complained of nausea, sore chests, vomiting and diarrhoea, doctors said.
"The situation is very serious. That is why I am presenting you with the government's resignation," Banny said.
Ivory Coast, split between a rebel-held north and government-run south after a brief 2002-2003 civil war, was already heading towards a political crisis with long-delayed presidential elections due at the end of October set to be postponed again.
The government's resignation came a day after rival factions in the West African country failed to reach agreement on key steps towards holding the polls.
Angry youths earlier blocked some roads in Abidjan with branches and boulders in protest against the toxic waste dumping, preventing medical staff from getting to hospital where dozens lined up for treatment, some wearing paper masks.
In TV broadcasts, the government appealed for the protesters to let medical personnel through and police later fired tear-gas to try to disperse them.
"We don't know what we're treating. When they have stinging eyes or noses we give them drops. We want to know what it is so we know how to treat it," he said, adding the hospital was running low on some medicines and X-ray film.
The government said three people had died and 1,500 fallen ill. It said it had requested international help to analyse the substance and work out how the city could be decontaminated.
The French foreign ministry said it was sending a team from its office of geological and mineral research to help evaluate the environmental risks and that a second crisis management team would be sent by the weekend to help limit its impact.
Ivorian state prosecutor Raymond Tchimou said three people linked to the firm responsible for unloading the ship had been arrested. Port documents seen by Reuters said the vessel, called the Probo Koala, had left Nigeria before coming to Abidjan.
"All those who knew of this problem and allowed it to happen will be pursued," he said.
Ivory Coast is the world's top cocoa producer and one foreign exporter, Barry Callebaut , said it had closed one of its warehouses near Abidjan's vast port because staff exposed to the fumes felt unwell.
Other exporters said they were operating normally. (Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly)