French troops freed some 191 Westerners, including more than 150 American school children and teachers who had been trapped in a mission school for six days because of intense fighting from rebel forces. The evacuees were driven to the capital city of Yamoussoukro where they boarded American C-130 transport planes under the guard of U.S. military troops recently deployed to oversee the evacuation.
The U.S. Ambassador to the Ivory Coast requested American Special Forces be sent to Yamoussoukro after heavy gunfights and shelling rocked the city early this week. The city of Bouake has been the site of some of the fiercest fighting from as many as 800 rebel soldiers angry over being dismissed from the government’s army for suspected disloyalty. Some 270 people were reported dead after the first few days of the uprising.
U.S. authorities said the planes would take the evacuees to neighboring Ghana where officials would oversee family reunions and fly others on to additional locations. Many of the trapped students were the children of missionaries in West Africa and ranged in age from kindergartners to teenagers.
French troops were able to evacuate the children and other foreigners after they negotiated a 48-hour cease-fire with the rebel troops who have held Bouake since last week. France was a colonial power in the Ivory Coast until 1960 and the country is home to some 650 French nationals.
“This cease-fire is just to allow the evacuation. We have agreed this with the French, not with the enemies,” a rebel spokesman told the Reuters news service.
Ivory Coast government officials have declared Bouake a “war zone” and have said they will launch their own offensive with loyalist troops as soon as the Westerners are evacuated.
“In several hours, the national forces of Ivory Coast will be called upon to do their duty,” Defense Minister Lida Moise Kouassi said on state television.
Neighboring countries of Nigeria and Ghana have put military planes and forces on standby to assist the government in curbing the rebellion. The Ivory Coast was once viewed as an example of ethnic and religious harmony amid other war torn African nations, but has descended into some of the worst violence in its history after an attempted military coup in 1999.
The latest uprising has brought simmering economic, political, ethnic and religious frustrations to the surface of the formerly peaceful nation, leading to fears of a wider conflict or civil war.
Reuters has reported large demonstrations in support of the rebels in Bouake while in Abidjian, hundreds of women and children demonstrated for peace, carrying signs saying “We support the government and loyalist forces.”