YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast – Thousands of civilians jammed the streets of the rebel-held city of Korhogo on Friday, shouting support for the insurgents as loyalist forces threatened attack. U.S. and French aircraft flew Americans and other foreigners to safety from the country's deadliest rebellion.
Eight days into Ivory Coast's deadliest rebellion, residents in the mutinous northern city of Korhogo dared government forces to carry out President Laurent Gbagbo's promise to attack.
"We have not been taken hostage -- we are with the mutineers!" cried some marchers, waving tree branches and placards.
Under protection of U.S. and French troops, missionaries with their families and other foreigners lined up at an airstrip in Ivory Coast's capital, Yamoussoukro, for evacuation. Adults stood amid piles of baggage. Children dashed about as U.S. soldiers watched, assault rifles ready.
Helicopters and convoys rushed hundreds out of the second rebel redoubt, the central city of Bouaké, to the airstrip under a rapidly expiring cease-fire negotiated with rebels to get foreigners to safety. Bouaké is about 150 miles south of Korhogo and some 40 miles north of Yamoussoukro.
In Yamoussoukro, Tim Downs' voice broke as he spoke of leaving a country he has called home for 15 years. He left Bouaké along with more than 1,000 other foreigners on Thursday.
"We live here. All my children graduated from school here," said Downs, a missionary from Overland Park, Kan. "My house looks like I just went out for bread, and I'll be back in 20 minutes."
Other Americans -- nine Peace Corps volunteers plucked from posts around the West African nation and a missionary family of four -- boarded a U.S. C-130 cargo plane bound for the U.S. evacuation point in neighboring Ghana.
Left behind, Bouaké residents hid in their homes, pinned down with power and water cut off for the past week, fearing they would be caught in the cross fire when a government assault finally comes.
Their dread growing at the sight of Westerners fleeing their city, thousands took to the road on foot Thursday in hopes of making it past rebel and government checkpoints to safety.
"Everyone is afraid," said one Ivorian woman, reached by telephone Thursday in Bouaké. "We'd like to be helped, too."
Ivory Coast was plunged into chaos after a failed coup attempt on Sept. 19 by soldiers who were being purged from the military. The rebels were driven from Abidjan but took over Bouaké, in the central part of the country, and Korhogo, an opposition stronghold in the north.
The government has promised an all-out offensive against the two cities. Defense Minister Lida Moise Kouassi on Thursday labeled them war zones and said anyone bearing arms there would be considered enemies of the state.
Nearly 1,000 foreign nationals -- including British, French and American citizens -- fled Bouaké on Thursday under protection of French troops, driving to the capital, Yamoussoukro. At an airport there, some waved to friends they had not seen since the rebels took over.
"It was the isolation, and thinking every night there could be an attack," said Jamal Bittar, a French evacuee of Lebanese descent.
"It's sad for the locals. They're not going to be able to leave," Bittar said. "We will pray for them."
At least 270 people died in the first days after the failed coup, which involved a core group of as many as 800 soldiers angry over dismissal from the army for suspected disloyalty.
The insurgents have found a degree of support in Ivory Coast's north, whose people complain of being treated as second-class citizens by the southern-based government led by Gbagbo. Northerners are predominantly Muslim, and of different ethnic groups than the largely Christian southerners.
Thousands of people descended into the streets in Bouaké Thursday, chanting "We don't want Gbagbo" and "Gbagbo is a thief."
The uprising poses the worst threat to the Ivorian government since a 1999 coup shattered stability in what was once West Africa's calmest and most prosperous country.
French troops had deployed hundreds of soldiers in jeeps and at least one light tank to Bouaké on Wednesday. A U.S. military C-130 with more American troops landed Thursday in Yamoussoukro, bolstering U.S. special forces and a handful of British troops already in the country to aid the rescue.
About 200 foreign schoolchildren and staff evacuated from a boarding school on the outskirts of Bouaké began leaving the country Thursday, a day after the French escorted them out.
The foreigners, most of them Americans, had been holed up for a week as gunfire erupted around their campus, until the French soldiers secured the school and drove them out. The school serves children of missionaries working in the region.
Some were flown out to Ghana. The remaining 177 adults and students from the school drove to Abidjan, the country's commercial capital on the Atlantic coast, said Clinton Morgan, an official with the Free Will Baptist Missions of Nashville, Tenn., which runs the school.
"There was some anxiety," said Downs, describing the Americans while trapped by rebel fire in Bouaké. "You have some people for whom it's no problem, and then others were freaked out. To others it was just another day in Africa."
The government has repeatedly accused Ivory Coast's northern-based opposition and unspecified foreign countries -- widely assumed to include Burkina Faso -- of fomenting unrest that has overtaken the country since the 1999 military takeover. Burkina Faso denies any role in the latest uprising.