- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2002

YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast American schoolchildren waving U.S. flags evacuated a rebel-held city under French military escort yesterday, as U.S. Special Forces landed in this West African nation to help rescue Westerners caught in its deadliest uprising.

The convoy of about a dozen cars left rebel-held Bouake for Yamoussoukro, the capital city 40 miles to the south, where Special Forces in C-130s arrived hours earlier to receive them.

The children waved the flags out car windows as the convoy headed to safety down the region's main road, after a new night of sporadic gunfire outside the International Christian Academy.

Many of the children also wore T-shirts sporting American flags. Some of the youngsters leaned out the windows to yell "Vive la France" at a French convoy headed the other way, into Bouake.

About 100 American children ages 5 to 18 attend the boarding school in Bouake, intended for sons and daughters of missionaries based across Africa. Another 60 children also attend the school, which has a staff of 40, most of whom are American.

About 100 well-armed French troops had moved into the whitewashed compound early yesterday, securing the school after rebel forces breached the walls two days earlier to use it as a fortress.

French forces were evacuating as many Westerners in the school and surrounding neighborhood as chose to leave. The school appeared empty after the evacuation. About 300 Americans live in the city, Ivory Coast's second-largest and home to a half-million residents.

Firing broke out again on both sides of the mission around daybreak yesterday, said Neil Gilliland, speaking by telephone from the affiliated Free Will Baptist Missions in Nashville, Tenn. "Nobody was firing at [the children], but there was gunfire all around," he said.

Special Forces troops spilled out of C-130s at the rescue staging area in Yamoussoukro. Unloading duffel bags and metal boxes, U.S. commandos set up base on the side of the airport tarmac.

The United States deployed about 200 soldiers, mostly Special Forces, to Ghana overnight to aid in any rescue missions as Ivory Coast battles to put down the 6-day-old uprising by coup forces.

Bouake and the northern opposition stronghold of Korhogo fell into rebel hands during a bloody coup attempt last Thursday. At least 270 persons were killed in the first days of the uprising. Forces loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo blame the coup attempt on former junta leader Gen. Robert Guei, who was killed in the first hours of the uprising.

Ivory Coast's military and government have pledged to retake both cities. The country's military officers said only concern for civilian casualties was staving off full-scale attack.

The insurgency with a core group of about 800 ex-soldiers angry over their dismissal from the army for suspected disloyalty poses Ivory Coast's worst crisis since the country's first-ever coup in 1999, which shattered stability in the once-prosperous country.

The uprising has sparked ethnic, political and religious hostilities that divide Ivory Coast's predominantly Christian south and its largely Muslim north.

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