By Joe Bavier
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - At least four people were killed in an exchange of fire between soldiers and unidentified gunmen at an army checkpoint in southern Ivory Coast, the West African nation's defence minister said on Sunday.
The world's top cocoa grower is struggling to cope with a spate of armed raids on police and military installations this month, raising fears of renewed instability following a conflict last year that killed 3,000 people.
The government has accused a network of supporters of former president Laurent Gbagbo, both within Ivory Coast and abroad, of organizing the raids to terrorize the population and scare off foreign investors.
Gbagbo's political allies have dismissed the allegations and accused the government of using the violence as an excuse to crack down on the opposition. Several leading members of Gbagbo's party have been arrested over the past week.
Defence Minister Paul Koffi Koffi said a gunbattle erupted on Saturday in the village of Irobo, about 80km (50 miles) west of the commercial capital Abidjan, when soldiers at a roadblock tried to stop a vehicle carrying a group of armed men.
"There was a high-speed chase. When our men tried to stop the attackers at a checkpoint, they opened fire on our soldiers," Koffi Koffi told Reuters.
The minister said it was still unclear how many people had been killed and wounded in the exchange of fire, which took place at 11 a.m. (1100 GMT).
"The initial toll was four dead. Some civilians were hit. The death toll has risen among the assailants, but we do not want to give a figure yet. We are currently gathering and verifying the information," he said.
Two suspected gunmen were captured, Koffi Koffi said.
The army has been carrying out clean-up operations in the area after battles in the nearby town of Dabou last week in which gunmen attacked army and gendarme bases and freed more than 100 prisoners from the local jail.
Before Saturday's violence, at least 15 people had been killed in a series of attacks over the last three weeks.
Gbagbo is awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague over crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the war that erupted last year after he rejected his election defeat by current President Alassane Ouattara.
After the war ended, Ouattara's government issued around two dozen international warrants for former high-ranking military and political officials close to Gbagbo, most of them believed to be living in Ghana, Benin and Togo.
On Saturday Ivorian and Ghanaian officials announced the arrest of Gbagbo's budget minister Justin Kone Katinan, who had been living as a political refugee in Ghana but remained a vocal supporter of Gbagbo and a critic of Ouattara's government.
Ivory Coast had been seeking his arrest for alleged economic crimes and said on Saturday it was negotiating his extradition.
Gendarmes arrested Laurent Akoun, secretary-general of Gbagbo's FPI party, at a military checkpoint in the town of Adzope, about 100km north of Abidjan on Sunday, his chief of staff told Reuters. Akoun had been due to attend a meeting of party militants there.
The FPI's deputy secretary-general, Alphonse Douati, was arrested last week and accused of being involved in this month's attacks.
(Reporting By Joe Bavier, editing by Tim Pearce)