ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – French troops in the Ivory Coast began evacuating foreigners Saturday from a rebel-held city in the west as loyalist troops headed toward the area with orders to oust the insurgents.
French soldiers said they got into gunbattles with the rebels in the city of Man while trying to secure the airport for the evacuation. One French soldier was wounded and at least five rebels were killed, a spokesman for the French force said.
There are about 80 French citizens in the Man region, and a smaller number of other Europeans. A White House spokesman said from President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex. that officials were checking if any Americans were there.
The rebels are a little known group who call themselves the Ivorian Popular Movement for the Greater West. They also hold Danane, a town 40 miles west of Man near the Liberian border.
Their motives aren't clear but in a statement Saturday, they called the clashes with the French on a "misunderstanding" and said there was no need for the evacuation.
The government of President Laurent Gbagbo says the rebels are allied with insurgents who have seized much of northern Ivory Coast since their failed uprising in September.
The northern rebels -- who call themselves the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast -- say they have nothing to do with the fighting in the west.
A spokesman said the French force was gathering foreigners at the airport in Man. "They will be evacuated in a plane to Abidjan," said Lt. Col. Ange-Antoine Leccia.
Leccia said at least five rebels were killed in gunbattles that broke out while the French were trying to secure the airport.
He said a French parachutist was evacuated to the commercial capital, Abidjan, with injuries from the fighting. The injuries were not life-threatening, Leccia said.
Loyalist troops were headed toward the cocoa-rich western belt Friday, under presidential orders to oust the rebels from Danane and Man. But by Saturday afternoon, there had been no fighting in the rebel-held towns.
Ivory Coast, the world's leading cocoa producer and a former French colony, was once considered an anchor of stability in West Africa. Now the government holds only the south, including the strategic port of Abidjan.
The 1,000-strong French force is monitoring a cease-fire agreed to by the northern rebels and the army on Oct. 17, but which has crumbled in recent days.
The northern rebels say they are fighting against the discrimination of mainly Muslim northern tribes by Christian and animist southern groups that have traditionally dominated government.
Residents in Danane and Man described the new rebels as young men, dressed in a mix of military fatigues, black jeans, T-shirts and flip-flops. Some rode scooters, others had commandeered cars, but there seemed to be little discipline among them.
Some appeared to be Liberians, others were from the local Yacouba tribe, residents said.
"They are on drugs, they drink. These are people you can't trust," said one woman, speaking by phone from Danane.
"They have machine guns and are shooting in the air. I think more have come from Man," she said, before breaking off into a whisper. "I have to go. I think they are here."
Danane is about 20 miles from the border with Liberia -- itself battered by a brutal seven-year war waged by many anarchic factions and a rebellion that still pitches government forces against insurgents based in the north.
The statement by the Popular Movement rebels was signed by Sgt. Felix Doh. It said the rebels wanted to avenge the death of former junta leader Gen. Robert Guei. Guei was shot dead in the early hours of the September uprising.
Guei was the leader of a 1999 coup that was the first ever in the Ivory Coast and had strong support in the west.
The western rebels also claimed to have captured the town of Toulepleu, near the border with Liberia. Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the attack but did not know the outcome.
Government officials also say there is a second group of western rebels, the previously unknown Movement for Justice and Peace, also believed to include supporters of Guei.