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U.S. Sends 200 Troops to Safeguard Americans in Ivory Coast

Africa: In a rebel-held city, 161 schoolchildren remain trapped at their campus in the cross-fire.

September 25, 2002|ESTHER SCHRADER and DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon dispatched about 200 troops to West Africa on Tuesday to safeguard 161 American schoolchildren and hundreds of other U.S. citizens trapped by heavy gunfire in Bouake, a rebel-held city at the center of a violent uprising in Ivory Coast.

Defense officials declined to give details of the operation, but a Western diplomat familiar with the region said the troops would try to get the Americans out of the country, which has been roiled since Thursday by a coup attempt.

The U.S. troops, which include special operations forces, plan to establish a forward base in nearby Accra, Ghana, to prepare for a possible move later this week into Ivory Coast, defense officials said.

Most of the U.S. forces are deploying from Germany, according to officials with the U.S. European Command. The officials said those troops would link up with other forces in the area and with French forces already in the country, a former French colony.

"The U.S. European Command is moving forces to the region to ensure the safety of American citizens in the wake of the civil unrest," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Donald Sewell, a Defense Department spokesman. "The U.S. is committed to ensuring the safety of its citizens and U.S. forces in the European Command region and remains ready for any and all contingencies."

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer condemned the attempted coup attempt and the political violence, calling on the parties "to lay down their arms so that there can be a peaceful resolution."

None of the more than 1,000 Americans known to be in the country had been harmed by late Tuesday in the fighting, which has left at least 270 people dead. But Americans in Bouake, the country's second-largest city, were trapped by heavy gunfire in the streets.

Among the stranded Americans are the children, ages 6 to 18, studying at the International Christian Academy, a boarding school in Bouake run since 1962 by American church groups for children of missionaries serving throughout West Africa.

The 161 children and 38 administrators, teachers and employees have been hunkered down in a half-dozen buildings on the campus since the violence began, said James Forlines, director of Free Will Baptist Foreign Missions in Nashville.

On Monday, shots were fired for the first time at the school, which lies in the cross-fire between rebel and government forces, Forlines said.

The uprising has plunged the country into its worst crisis since it achieved independence in 1960. Loyalist troops were able to quell the revolt in Abidjan, the commercial capital, after 12 hours, but the rebels seized Bouake and the northern city of Korhogo.

The governments of Gambia, Senegal and Sierra Leone are trying to rescue national soccer team players trapped in a Bouake hotel, where they were staying during a tournament.

France has sent extra troops and helicopters to reinforce its permanent presence of 600 troops and to protect 20,000 French nationals, French officials said.

But United Nations officials worry that many immigrant workers from neighboring African states are not being protected. Officials with the U.N. refugee agency reported that since the coup attempt began, Ivorian police and soldiers have targeted dozens of nationals from Mali and Burkina Faso, beating them and burning their slum dwellings.

Ivorian government officials have blamed certain unnamed northern neighbors, presumably Mali and Burkina Faso, for supporting the attempted coup.

Malians and Burkinabes make up a large portion of the 5 million foreign nationals--one-third of Ivory Coast's population--who work on the country's cocoa and tropical fruit plantations.

The Muslim nationals of Mali and Burkina Faso are often perceived as sympathetic to Ivory Coast's main opposition party, which gets its strongest support from the Muslim north. Support for the Christian-dominated government is strongest in the south.

Meanwhile, human rights groups condemned the Ivorian government for cracking down on local and foreign journalists since the attempted coup. Editors of four opposition newspapers said they bowed to government pressure to stop publishing. The BBC also reported that its correspondent was among two foreign journalists who were briefly arrested.

*

Schrader reported from Washington and Maharaj from Nairobi, Kenya.

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