Published January 13, 2015
Waving U.S. flags and shouting 'Vive la France!," American schoolchildren escaped a rebel-held Ivory Coast city under siege Wednesday, as U.S. special forces and French troops moved in to rescue Westerners caught in the West African nation's bloodiest uprising.
The evacuation under armed French military escort came amid fears of a full-scale battle could envelop Bouake, a central city of half-million residents. "We're running out of everything," said one frightened Ivorian woman, reached by telephone. "We are scared."
U.S. and French troops moved out in force Wednesday to safeguard Westerners caught in a six-day uprising after a failed coup Sept. 19 in which at least 270 people died. With insurgents holed up in two cities, Bouake and the northern city of Korhogo, President Laurent Gbagbo has pledged an all-out battle to root out rebels in what was once West Africa's most stable and prosperous country.
The U.S. Embassy said late Wednesday the United States was advising all Americans to leave Ivory Coast, saying in a statement that U.S. citizens should go while flights are available and airports open.
U.S. authorities meanwhile were "assessing options for the safe removal ... of all Americans from the unstable areas" of Ivory Coast, the Embassy said. The number of Americans in the once-stable West African nation is in the low thousands.
French troops reached the mission school on the edge of Bouake early Wednesday after a night of new gunfire to bring out Westerners, including 100 American children, and escort them back safely to an airfield in Yamoussoukro, the Ivory Coast capital. U.S. C-130 cargo planes will fly them neighboring Ghana on Thursday morning, the Pentagon said.
The children waved American flags out of car windows as the convoy headed to safety down the region's main road. "We're very happy to get off campus," one girl said as the convoy swept past.
One hundred of the 160 pupils at the school are American, as is the majority of the 40 teachers and other staffers. The other children are from a range of nationalities. The Pentagon said the French escorted out 191 people.
Arriving after the French, U.S. special forces spilled out of two C-130 cargo planes that touched down in Yamoussoukro at midafternoon from a staging point in Ghana. Plane ramps came down and U.S. forces secured the tarmac of the forest-lined airstrip in Yamoussoukro, clearing the way for Humvees that came rolling out.
American soldiers humping duffel bags and metal boxes rapidly set up a post at the strip, which hundreds of French troops had made their base for any rescue missions on behalf of Yamoussoukro's foreigners. American officials would not say what the soldiers were going to do next.
About 300 Americans live in Bouake, Ivory Coast's second-largest city, which has been cut off from water, electricity and food since last week's rebel takeover.
"Our idea is to get as many out as possible," Richard Buangan, a U.S. diplomat helping to coordinate at the staging area, said of Americans in Bouake after another night of firing outside the International Christian Academy on the city's outskirts.
About 100 well-armed French troops reached the whitewashed compound of the mission school at midday. "Everyone there is ecstatic," said Neil Gilliland, speaking by telephone from the affiliated Free Will Baptist Missions in Nashville, Tenn., minutes after the troops' arrival.
The mission boarding school houses teachers, and children ages 5 to 18 of missionaries based across Africa.
Firing broke out again on both sides of the mission at daybreak Wednesday, after panic two nights earlier when rebels breached the walls of the campus and fired from its grounds.
"Nobody was firing at them, but there was gunfire all around," Gilliland said of Monday's shooting outside the school.
The armed French troops escorted the evacuees back to Yamoussoukro, where U.S. forces were waiting. Waving U.S. flags and with many wearing U.S. flag T-shirts, the relieved children cheered out the windows at a French convoy headed the other way.
"Vive la France!" -- "Long live France!" they hollered.
In Bouake, tense residents reached by telephone Wednesday said rebels still controlled the city and could be seen cruising the streets in commandeered vehicles.
In Korhogo, rebels armed with guns and rocket launchers went house to house, rounding up any paramilitary police and soldiers not yet captured, and confiscating their weapons.
Trapped in their houses, with no sign of a promised government offensive to rout the rebels, residents were becoming increasingly frustrated.
"All my activities are paralyzed. I'm having trouble feeding my family," said mechanic Souleymane Coulibaly. "If this continues, it is us who will go dislodge the mutineers."
As foreign troops scrambled to ensure the safety of Westerners, the hundreds of thousands of workers from neighboring Muslim countries were far more vulnerable in the uprising, which has sparked off deadly rivalries between the mainly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south.
A core group of 750-800 ex-soldiers -- angry at their dismissal from the army for their suspected allegiance to the country's former junta leader -- were believed behind the insurgency. Paramilitary police killed the ex-junta leader, Gen. Robert Guei, in the first days of the coup attempt.
On Wednesday, some 200 protesters threw stones at the French Embassy, demanding it turn over an opposition leader with a northern, Muslim base of support who is being sheltered by the mission.
They then marched on the embassy of predominantly Muslim Burkina Faso, scaling the walls to pull down and tear up the country's flag.
Paramilitary police over the weekend burned a mostly Muslim shantytown in Abidjan, and Muslim northerners and guest workers reported arrests and beatings.
The government has repeatedly accused the country's predominantly Muslim, northern-based opposition and unspecified foreign countries -- widely assumed to include Burkina Faso -- of fomenting the unrest that has overtaken the country since the 1999 military takeover. Burkina Faso denies any role in the latest uprising.