YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast – France pledged logistical help to its embattled former colony of Ivory Coast on Saturday, as rebels moved to secure their territory ahead of a showdown with government forces.
The mutineers in the north spread out along the country's western border, meeting little resistance as they moved into Odienne and then pressed south to Touba, rebel and Western military officials said on condition of anonymity.
Fearing their city would be next to fall, panicked residents more than 150 miles down the road from Odienne were fleeing Man, French army Lt. Col. Ange-Antoine Leccia said Saturday.
President Laurent Gbagbo's government has repeatedly pledged to rout the insurgents responsible for Ivory Coast's bloodiest-ever uprising.
At least 270 people died in the first days of fighting after a failed coup attempt on Sept. 19.
French authorities said Saturday they had agreed to a government request for logistical help.
"We are mobilized to guarantee the safety of the French community in Ivory Coast, and we are also providing logistical support to the Ivory Coast authorities," a French Foreign Ministry statement said.
Details on the type of support to be provided and the timeframe were not immediately available, a ministry official reached by telephone said.
French soldiers, deployed in the hundreds, wrapped up the evacuation of some 2,100 mostly foreign nationals -- including 312 Americans -- from the central rebel-held city Friday. Residents there have been pinned down, without water or electricity, by sporadic gunfire for over a week.
The last foreigners were being sent to Abidjan, Leccia said Saturday in the capital Yamoussoukro. About 20 French citizens decided to stay behind in Bouake, he said.
The deployment of French and American soldiers to safeguard foreigners caught in the bloody uprising, code-named Operation Unicorn, was set to continue. Leccia said the French military would be ready to intervene if any threat emerged to foreign nationals.
"We did it in Bouake, and we can do it anywhere in the Ivory Coast at very short notice," he said.
U.S. special forces also planned to stay to protect Americans in the area. They have set up a base at a church compound in Yamoussoukro and have been seen up to 30 miles north of the city.
As the evacuation wound down, many terrified Ivory Coast nationals desperately tried to make their own way out of Bouake on foot, clutching bundles of goods and balancing cooking pots on their heads.
For many, the flight to safety ended at rebel checkpoints, where uniformed fighters turned them away.
"It's a depressing sight, all these lines of men and women and children trying to flee," said a teacher from Bouake, who waited Saturday at the French staging area in Yamoussoukro for a flight to Abidjan. "It's awful."
The Ivorian, who gave her name only as Henriette, tried to leave Friday with her cook and her cook's 2-year-old daughter. Rebels allowed her through because she suffers from Polio, but turned back the others.
The Yamoussoukro airport has been turned into a processing center for evacuees from Bouake, 45 miles to the north. From there, U.S. military C-130 cargo planes fly them to Abidjan, or neighboring Ghana. Others continue south in cars and buses.
The French Foreign Ministry statement also said France supported the idea of a West African peacekeeping force to help end the rebellion.
Declaring support of Ivory Coast's government, West African leaders planned to meet in Accra, Ghana, on Sunday at an emergency summit expected to consider dispatching a military force to the country.
Deployment of the "peace contingent" was likely to follow the summit, Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade said.
Regional military power Nigeria has already sent three fighter jets to support Ivory Coast.
The government has declared "war zones" of the two cities in the center and north of the country that have been in rebel hands since the coup attempt.
Warning an assault was imminent, Ivory Coast military officials issued repeated instructions to Bouake's residents over state television to remain in their houses, away from doors and windows.
Once a haven of stability in a region devastated by brutal conflict, Ivory Coast was plunged into chaos after the uprising that involved a core group of as many as 800 soldiers who were being purged from the military on allegations of disloyalty.
Insurgents were quelled in Abidjan, but took over Bouake, Korhogo and other areas in the north of the country.
The rebels have found a degree of support in Ivory Coast's north, whose people complain of being treated as second-class citizens by Gbagbo's southern-based government. Northerners are predominantly Muslim, and of different ethnic groups than the largely Christian southerners.
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 its first coup in 1999. Burkina Faso denies any role in the latest uprising.