U.S. sends troops to Ivory Coast

Fighting has trapped 100 U.S. schoolchildren

200 soldiers dispatched

September 25, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast - The United States sent about 200 troops yesterday to the West African nation of Ivory Coast, where 100 American schoolchildren have been trapped in the rebel-held city of Bouake since Thursday.

Starting Monday night, heavy gunfire and shelling could be heard inside the city, according to officials associated with the school and residents reached by telephone.

The Ivorian government said its soldiers entered Bouake on Monday night to dislodge the rebels, who also control the area directly north of it.

"At the request of the U.S. ambassador to the Ivory Coast, the U.S. European Command is moving forces to assure the safety of American citizens," Lt. Cmdr. Don Sewell, a Pentagon spokesman, said in Washington, declining to give details about any plans.

Other U.S. military officials said the deployment included a sizable number of Special Forces troops already in the region for joint training exercises with another nation.

The students are among 200 foreigners trapped at the kindergarten-through-12th-grade International Christian Academy in Bouake, which boards children of missionaries in West Africa, said Neil Gilliland, an official at Free Will Baptist Foreign Missions in Nashville, Tenn., the school's owner.

Officials in Nashville, who have been in direct contact with the trapped people, said no one had been hurt.

Heavy artillery has been heard less than a mile from the school since yesterday afternoon, said Gilliland, who worked there for six years.

"Currently, there is enough food for the next few days," Gilliland said.

"But without electricity or water, it does become a problem."

France, the country's former colonial ruler, has already dispatched hundreds of soldiers to the Bouake area, where about 600 French citizens have been caught in the uprising.

"We've been hearing big explosions since noon," Vie Konate, a 26-year-old student living in the center of Bouake, said over the telephone last night. "It's intense. It hasn't stopped. Everybody's inside. We don't really know who's firing."

Though the country's political violence erupted again five days ago, the identity of the rebels now holding two of the country's major cities remained unclear.

The government of President Laurent Gbagbo has said that an uprising last Thursday in Abidjan was a failed coup led by the former military ruler, Gen. Robert Guei, and supported by a neighboring country.

But political opponents and the media have raised serious questions about the government's interpretation of events, pointing out that Guei and his family were killed in their home in Abidjan.

Another political opponent, Alassane D. Ouattara, said government forces also tried to assassinate him. They eventually burned down Ouattara's house; he has taken refuge in the French Embassy.

The government has responded, in part, by shutting down local stations broadcasting the BBC and Radio France Internationale.

Ivory Coast's longtime reputation as one of the stablest countries in Africa began to erode in December 1999, when Guei staged the country's first coup. Unrest has been constant since.

In late 2000, a popular uprising propelled Gbagbo to power after Guei tried to steal an election.

Since then the Gbagbo government has perpetuated the xenophobic attitude of its predecessors, further widening ethnic and religious cleavages.

The government, which is dominated by southern Christians, has increasingly marginalized northern Muslims, whose leader is Ouattara.

But so many ethnic, political and religious factions have become disaffected in recent years that it has been impossible to identify any one among the rebels staging the current uprising.

About 3 million immigrants from Burkina Faso live in Ivory Coast.

Because of their religious and ethnic ties to the northern Ivoirians, they, too, have become the target of the government and the security forces.

At the White House yesterday, Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman, called for an end to what he described as "extra-constitutional action."

"It's important for the parties to lay down their arms so that there can be a peaceful resolution of the situation in the Ivory Coast," Fleischer said.

"We do have a concern about the safety of Americans who are in the Ivory Coast, and we continue to closely monitor the situation there and work with the French especially on this."

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