RAY SUAREZ: Until recently, the former French colony of Ivory Coast was widely considered a model for all of Africa. The world's leading exporter of cocoa was economically secure, highly literate, and politically stable. But in the last few years, political, military, and religious divisions have plunged the country into violence. (Gunfire ) in the past week, the bloodshed that began with a military uprising against the two-year- old government has been the worst ever, killing almost 300 and threatening a region of the world already effected by brutal civil wars in neighboring Liberia and nearby Sierra Leone. Richard Joseph is a professor at northwestern university and a fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace.
RICHARD JOSEPH: Well, I think the worse case scenario is what you saw in central Africa, namely the Congo, at Zaire, getting itself into the difficulties, and having countries form that region becoming involved. When you're trying to make it very hard to resolve a problem in one country, because of the implications in the other countries, it becomes very much a regionalized issue.
RAY SUAREZ: Early Thursday morning, an estimated 700 recently decommissioned soldiers attacked several major cities, targeting military and government installations.
LIDA MOISE KOUASSI, Defense Minister, Ivory Coast (speaking through interpreter): Unidentified people attacked our army and strategic places in the town. My residence was looted and bombed.
RAY SUAREZ: Among the early casualties, former President General Robert Guei, rumored to be allied with the rebels, shot dead in the first hours of the conflict by pro-government soldiers. Also dead, the government's interior minister. President Laurent Gbagbo has called the uprising a coup attempt, vowing a full-scale battle against the rebels, sending his army to the rebel stronghold of Bouke in the North. They were joined by 100 French soldiers sent in to help protect major cities and rescue more than 200 international school students in Bouke. About half are American.
MAN: Everything's okay, we're glad the French came.
RAY SUAREZ: The State Department says U.S. Troops there are part of the same mission.
RICHARD BOUCHER: 8:30 AM local time on the Ivory Coast, French forces secured the enter Christian Academy. All faculty and students are safe at this time. I do want to take I do want to take this opportunity to thank the government of France for its efforts to secure the school and ensure the safety of the occupants. Our people on the ground have been coordinating very closely with the French on the ground to try to ensure the safety of Americans and other third country nationals. There is fighting that continues in and around Bouke and other parts of the country.
RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, in the commercial center of Abidjan, government and rebel troops have burned down scores of homes, displacing hundreds of people in a city that already accommodates thousands of refugees from neighboring wars. At its root, says Richard Joseph, the upheaval is a function of an almost ten-year power struggle played out by four men, each seeking to succeed the country's first President, the autocratic Felix Houphouet-Boigny. Houphouet-Boigny became the first head of state at independence in 1960, and led Ivory Coast until he died in 1993.
RICHARD JOSEPH: The most general principle, not only in Ivory Coast, but in most of Africa is really how do you carry out a transition from autocratic authoritarian, monopolist political system to open, pluralist systems. How do you make that transition? In the case of Ivory Coast, that transition has been very badly handled.
RAY SUAREZ: After Robert Guei took over in a coup, he kept a popular Muslim politician off the ballot, then Bagbo, a popular Christian, took over after elections. Since then, Christians and Muslims have clashed repeatedly, over political power. The religious divide threatens to draw in Muslim Burkina Faso to the North, which the Ivory Coast government says was behind the mutiny. Meanwhile, there's ongoing instability to the west, where the civil wars have drawn in Guinea. While the Bagbo government has coordinated its actions with the French government, Richard Joseph says the U.S. should take on a more active role as well.
RICHARD JOSEPH: I think President Bush has already set the tone, I mean he did that in a number of speeches earlier this year -- beginning to talk about a connection between state failure, and the threats to American security and the way in which the whole issue of terrorism, the whole issue of 9/11 is connected to instability and insecurities in other regions. This has just been put forward. But I think we need to go beyond that. We have to talk about what are the implications of this? We can't sit back and see a region that was relatively quite stable 20 years ago go down a road of increasing conflict and increasing instability, and not act in a very decisive way.
RAY SUAREZ: For now, American troops have joined their French colleagues and set up a post to help Americans reunite with their families, and if need be, evacuate the country.