ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Heavy gunfire erupted Monday night at a school where about 100 American children were taking refuge from a bloody military uprising in the Ivory Coast, the school director said. French troops moved into the rebel-held city and stood ready to evacuate foreigners if needed.
The U.S.-based director of a boarding school housing the young Americans -- children of missionaries from across Africa -- said rebels breached the walls of the school itself and fired briefly but furiously across the campus.
"It really was cross fire. Not shooting at the children, but a whole lot of ammo going and scaring the children to death," said James Forlines, director of Free Will Baptist Missions, who spoke to The Associated Press from Nashville, Tenn., where he was in hourly contact with the school. None of the children were hurt.
Ranging from infants to 12 year olds, the young Americans are among 200 foreigners holed up at a boarding school for children of missionaries in Bouake, a besieged city that has been in rebel hands since they launched a coup attempt four days ago. The uprising killed at least 270 people in its first days alone.
Residents said the shooting was brief, and rebel forces denied radio reports that the town in central Ivory Coast had been retaken by loyalist troops, who have been threatening an imminent attack for days.
"No, they did not even attack us," one rebel fighter told The Associated Press, on condition of anonymity.
The half-million residents of Bouake are braced for a showdown between insurgents and government forces, claimed by military sources to have surrounded the former French colony's mainly Muslim second-largest city.
Just in case, French troops with trucks and helicopters set up camp Monday at an airport outside the capital Yamoussoukro, just 40 miles from Bouake.
Their mission: to ensure the safety of the French citizens and other Western nationals and, if necessary, to get them out. There are about 20,000 French nationals in the Ivory Coast.
French forces intended to be "as close as possible for all eventualities and to dissuade anyone from endangering the security of our nationals," French Col. Charles de Kersabiec said at Yamoussoukro.
The U.S. Embassy said Sunday it had no immediate evacuation plans for its nationals.
A half-dozen African leaders planned to meet Thursday in Morocco for a regional summit aimed at trying to restore peace. Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo is among those invited, according to a statement issued by the Gabonese president's office.
The summit, called at the initiative of Gabon, will take place in the central Moroccan city of Marrakech. Burkina Faso President Blaise Campaore was also invited, as well as the presidents of Togo and Senegal.
Bouake has become a key flashpoint in a crisis that has raised the specter of this once-stable country being gripped by the kind of endemic violence that has ravaged neighbors Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The uprising was also opening up deadly ethnic and religious rivalries between the mainly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south in a nation that was once an oasis of stability in a region scarred by some of Africa's most brutal wars.
The rebels' choice to take refuge in mainly Muslim cities has underscored the country's religious and ethnic fault lines that lie behind hundreds of deaths since the country's first coup in 1999. The same rifts have split the nation's security forces.
Rebels also control the northern town of Korhogo, an opposition stronghold.
State radio Monday reported brief clashes outside Bouake and said it was only a matter of hours before the rebels were ousted.
In Korhogo, there were signs of friction. Residents told The Associated Press that a rebel volunteer had been shot dead when he tried to leave the insurgents.
Eight prisoners, who tried to escape from the local jail after their guards abandoned the facility, were also killed by the rebels, relatives of jailed inmates said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The insurgents apparently include a core group of 700-800 ex-soldiers angry over their recent purge from the army for suspected disloyalty.
The ex-soldiers are believed to have been purged because they were seen as loyal to the country's former junta leader, Gen. Robert Guei, killed by paramilitaries in the first hours of the uprising.
Authorities have said that Guei, who installed a military regime after the country's first coup in 1999, was behind the bloodletting -- but Guei's family and aides have denied his involvement, as have some rebels.
At the Yamoussoukro airport, French soldiers could be seen Monday coming and going in trucks, or playing checkers in the afternoon heat. Helicopters stood at the ready on the runway, surrounded by scrubland.
Asked about the American children and other foreigners in Bouake, de Kersabiec, the French colonel, said Monday afternoon he knew of no immediate risk to them.
"For the moment, only a direct and specific threat against nationals could make us decide to get involved in the situation," he added.
France sent transport helicopters and a reported 100 extra French troops to Abidjan on Sunday, reinforcing approximately 600 troops.
Gbagbo's government has blamed Thursday's uprising on other countries -- an accusation widely believed aimed at the Muslim nation of Burkina Faso, on Ivory Coast's northern border.
In a region where civil wars often become multi-country affairs, spilling over porous borders, the accusations have raised fears of a wider conflict.
Burkina Faso said it was closing its ground border Monday while Liberia -- to the west -- reinforced its frontier.
The mutiny -- the most serious threat to stability in the country since the 1999 coup -- began when insurgents launched coordinated attacks on military installations, government sites, and Cabinet ministers' houses in five cities and towns.