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American Kids Rescued From War Zone

Ivory Coast: French soldiers evacuate 161 schoolchildren from a city held by insurgents. The president says a battle is imminent.

September 26, 2002|From Times Wire Services

BOUAKE, Ivory Coast — Shouting "Vive la France!" and waving U.S. flags, 161 American schoolchildren were rescued Wednesday by French troops from a rebel-held Ivory Coast city.

The students and about 30 adults from the International Christian Academy in the city of Bouake were escorted by French soldiers to an airfield in nearby Yamoussoukro, where U.S. C-130 airplanes will fly them to Ghana this morning, Pentagon officials said. U.S. troops arrived at the airfield Wednesday afternoon from Ghana.

The evacuation came amid concerns that a full-scale battle could envelop Bouake, a central city of half a million residents. "We're running out of everything," said one Ivorian woman, reached by telephone. "We are scared."

At least 270 people have been killed in the former French colony since a coup attempt failed last week and insurgents seized control of Bouake, the northern city of Korhogo and other towns. President Laurent Gbagbo has pledged an all-out battle to crush the rebels.

About 300 Americans live in Bouake, Ivory Coast's second-largest city, which has been cut off from water, electricity and food since last week's rebel takeover.

"Our idea is to get as many out as possible," Richard Buangan, a U.S. diplomat helping to coordinate at the staging area, said after another night of gunfire outside the school on the city's outskirts.

Those rescued Wednesday were elated. "We thank God that the French came for us," said Sam Parham, an American living in Benin who was picking up his two sons at the school when the uprising began. "There was tracer going over the compound, and one mortar round hit inside the compound."

The insurgents--a group of disgruntled soldiers discharged from the army--remained in control of Bouake on Wednesday, cruising the streets in commandeered vehicles. In Korhogo, the mutineers went door to door, rounding up paramilitary police and soldiers and confiscating their weapons.

Trapped in their houses, with no sign of the promised government offensive, residents were becoming increasingly frustrated.

"All my activities are paralyzed. I'm having trouble feeding my family," mechanic Souleymane Coulibaly said. "If this continues, it is us who will go dislodge the mutineers."

A summit scheduled for today in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh to try to defuse the crisis was called off without explanation. However, West African leaders said they would meet Saturday in Senegal's capital, Dakar.

Anti-foreigner sentiment is growing in Ivory Coast after officials said neighboring countries helped the rebels. Westerners have often been accused of bias in favor of the opposition.

Hundreds of pro-government youths demonstrated outside the French Embassy in Abidjan, which has sheltered opposition leader Alassane Ouattara from what he has said was an attempt to seize and kill him by Ivorian security forces during the chaos.

Youths also attacked Burkina Faso's consulate and smashed shops owned by some of the 3 million Burkinabe immigrants in this country of 16 million. Ivory Coast has accused Burkina Faso of harboring armed dissidents opposed to its president. Burkina Faso denies any role in the coup attempt.

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