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Ivory Coast Issues Arrest Warrant for Presidential Candidate Soro

FILE - Ivory Coast parliament speaker Guillaume Soro speaks at the National Assembly in Abidjan, Feb. 8, 2019.

Ivory Coast has issued an arrest warrant for Guillaume Soro, a former rebel leader and candidate in next year's presidential election, four government sources said on Monday, just before he was due to return home after more than six months overseas.

The move against Soro, who retains the loyalty of many former rebel commanders who now hold senior positions in the army, could significantly escalate tensions ahead of an election next October that is seen as a test of Ivory Coast's stability.

About 3,000 people died in a brief civil war that followed the victory of President Alassane Ouattara in a 2010 election.

Ouattara won re-election in 2015 but has given mixed signals about whether he will seek a third term, adding to uncertainty about the vote in Francophone West Africa's largest economy.

Soro had been scheduled to return to Ivory Coast on Monday for the first time since May but diverted his private flight from Paris to neighboring Ghana "for security reasons," his adviser, Alain Lobognon, said.

Lobognon said he was not aware of an arrest warrant. The sources said the warrant charged Soro with trying to destabilize the country and misusing public funds, but they provided no further details. A police spokesman said he did not know about the warrant.

Outside Soro's headquarters in Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan, riot police fired tear gas to disperse more than 100 supporters who had gathered, a Reuters witness said.

Police later detained Lobognon and another Soro ally, Souleymane Kamarate Kone, near the headquarters and took them to an unknown location, Lobognon's wife, Amira, told Reuters. The police spokesman could not be reached again to comment.

Soro, 47, led the rebels who tried and failed to oust then-president Laurent Gbagbo in 2002. His forces installed Ouattara in the presidency during the civil war that followed the 2010 election, which was fought largely along regional and ethnic lines.

Soro then served for several years as speaker of the National Assembly but has since fallen out with Ouattara, who is widely expected to back his prime minister, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, in the 2020 presidential election.

However, Ouattara said last month he would run for another term if his predecessors, Gbabgo and Henri Konan Bedie, were candidates. His opponents say that would violate constitutional term limits.

Gbagbo was acquitted earlier this year of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague but remains in Europe while the prosecution appeals the verdict.

Bedie, who was president from 1993-99, has yet to say whether he will run.

Ivory Coast is the world's largest producer of cocoa and was the fastest-growing economy in West Africa last year.