- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 25, 2002

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast U.S. troops headed to West Africa yesterday to safeguard 100 American schoolchildren holed up in a rebel-held city after the bloodiest-ever uprising in the Ivory Coast. Frightened residents reported heavy gunfire.
French troops moved closer to the central city of Bouake as well, ready to rescue their nationals and other Westerners if Ivory Coast's government makes good on a pledge to root out forces behind a bloody coup attempt Thursday.
"A very welcome development," said a relieved James Forlines, director of Free Will Baptist Foreign Missions, a Nashville, Tenn.-based church group that had sent calls for help overnight for the mission school in the cut-off city after rebels breached the school's walls, firing from its grounds.
"It has been a very trying day. It has been a very trying five days," mission official Neil Gilliland said, speaking by telephone from the United States.
The scramble to safeguard Westerners in Ivory Coast came amid clashes and growing tensions after the failed coup. At least 270 persons have died so far.
An American expeditionary force and British troops already were on the ground in Ivory Coast, Ghanaian and French military and government officials said.
"The U.S. European Command is moving forces to be in a closer position to provide for the safety of American citizens," a statement from the command said.
U.S. military aircraft, including three C-130 cargo planes carrying troops and equipment, were expected late yesterday or early today at a base in Ghana's capital, Accra, a senior official in Ghana's Foreign Ministry said.
The base was expected to be the staging area for any U.S. evacuation.
"There's fighting going on now in the area near where this school is located. That's what our concern is," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington, speaking about the children and staff of Bouake's International Christian Academy.
Tensions were "understandably high" at the school, Mr. Boucher added, but all students and staff are believed to be safe.
U.S. defense officials spoke of deployment of fewer than 200 American troops. No general evacuation of Americans was planned, Mr. Boucher said.
One hundred French troops moved from their staging area at Ivory Coast's capital, Yamoussoukro, where helicopters and trucks were standing by to ferry out foreigners.
"We want to get closer so that if the belligerents whoever they are attack our nationals, we can intervene very quickly," said French army Col. Charles de Kersabiec. France is Ivory Coast's former colonial ruler.
A convoy of French reinforcements rumbled into the capital after dark.
A summit planned for this week in Morocco to try to restore peace in Ivory Coast has been postponed until it is certain Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo can attend, a top Moroccan official said yesterday.
Tense residents in Bouake reported an hour of heavy gun and artillery fire yesterday afternoon.
The night before, heavy gunfire rang out across the pinned-down city, 220 miles north of the commercial capital, Abidjan.
Rebels climbed the walls of the boarding school for missionary children, home to about 200 foreigners, most of them Americans, church officials said.
"It really was a cross fire, not shooting at the children but a whole lot of ammo going, scaring the kids to death," said Mr. Forlines, whose mission has ties to Bouake's International Christian Academy.
In the other rebel-held city, Korhogo, rebels firing automatic weapons into the air began ordering people out of the town center and back into their houses, a resident said by phone. No loyalist soldiers had been seen in the town, the resident added.
The uprising with a core group of 750 to 800 formers soldiers angry about their dismissal from the army for suspected disloyalty poses Ivory Coast's worst crisis since its first-ever coup in 1999.
A lagoonside city of high-rises and multilane highways, Abidjan had been the region's anchor of stability and prosperity until a 1990s economic downturn, followed by the shattering coup.


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