Ivory Coast Call to Arms Draws Thousands of Young Volunteers

A call to arms by the Ivory Coast's government drew thousands of volunteers, with young men thronging military posts to enlist for battle against the West African nation's nearly 3-month-old rebellion.

The call-up came as rebels made new gains in the west over the weekend, and with both sides apparently gearing up for major new offensives.

"Our country has been attacked, and I have come to help defend it. I am ready to die for my country," declared Laurent Doue, an unemployed 23-year-old, waiting to enlist on Tuesday.

About 2,000 volunteers — many chanting "We want uniforms!" — mobbed the Defense Ministry in the southern commercial capital, Abidjan.

Thousands more lined up at tables staffed by uniformed soldiers at Abidjan's army headquarters to present identification documents and add their names to the list of volunteers.

Ivory Coast's government had asked for 3,000 more volunteers in the fight against rebels, who have seized the north and are now battling for control of the cocoa-and coffee-rich west.

Rebels are demanding President Laurent Gbagbo resign, clearing the way for new elections.

The uprising, following the country's first-ever coup in 1999 and a late 1990 economic downturn, has splintered a nation that stood for decades as West Africa's most stable and prosperous.

Ivory Coast is the world's largest cocoa producer.

The government appeal asked for 18 months of military service from volunteers ages 20 to 26. On Tuesday, Defense Minister Bertin Kadet extended the age limit to 30.

Recruits would receive just six weeks training, instead of the usual 12, owing to the urgency, army spokesman Lt. Col. Jules Yao Yao said.

"To die at the front is to die for honor," Yao Yao told the crowd at army headquarters.

Men who don't make the cut will be incorporated into a new civil defense force, Yao Yao said. Its duties will include manning civilian checkpoints that have sprung up in recent weeks.

An opposition political group criticized the drive to enlist soldiers, calling it a ploy by Gbagbo's governing party to arm its young men and legalize loyalist militias.

Meanwhile, the British Embassy issued a "final warning" to its citizens in Ivory Coast, urging them to leave the country.

"It may not be possible to arrange any subsequent evacuation by civil or military means," it warned.

American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and other embassies likewise have urged their nationals to leave.

A 1,000-strong French force in the former French colony already has evacuated hundreds of foreigners.