ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Loyalist troops barreled north Saturday to oust rebels from two cities they still held, as state television said about 270 people have been killed in this West African nation's bloodiest-yet military uprising.
Prime Minister Affi Nguessan said a government offensive was imminent. "Our forces are on the move and we hope in the coming hours that we will see the results on the ground," he told state radio.
Rebels still control the northern opposition stronghold of Korhogo and the central town of Bouake, 220 miles north of Abidjan, the commercial capital. President Laurent Gbagbo has pledged a full-scale battle to remove the rebels.
But there were reports the rebels were widening their power base.
A security official in neighboring Burkina Faso, speaking on condition of anonymity, said rebels had taken control of other northern cities, including Katiola, Ferkessedougou and Ouangolodougou, on the border with Burkina Faso. It was not immediately possible to verify the claim.
The official said the rebels wanted to prevent loyalist forces from using air strips to ferry troops to the region.
State television said Saturday that initial figures show 270 people were killed and 300 injured in fighting since Thursday's failed coup, but didn't provide a breakdown of the casualties.
In Abidjan, Ivory Coast's main city, paramilitary police set fire to a mainly Muslim neighborhood, near the scene of fighting in Thursday's failed coup. Smzoke rose as an ominous sign the latest bloodletting was unleashing deadly ethnic, political and religious hatreds in what was once one of West Africa's most stable and prosperous nations.
Frightened residents -- many workers from Burkina Faso and other Muslim countries, and frequent targets of attacks in Ivory Coast's predominantly Christian south -- said paramilitary police were setting fire to their makeshift shacks, beating the occupants and leading them away.
"This is a terrible situation," said Ablasse Rimtoumda, head of the community of Burkina Faso nationals in the burning Agban district. Despairing residents sat with belongings piled beside them as flames destroyed their homes.
Newly homeless people pushed carts piled with mattresses, suitcases, and televisions.
"People shouldn't do this to us," Rimtoumda said as soot fell around him.
Some residents said the paramilitary police had told them they needed to clear the area because rebels had taken refuge there.
Western embassies warned of gangs of government supporters armed with machetes roaming the streets of Abidjan, once called the Paris of West Africa. Bands were attacking foreigners from surrounding Muslim countries.
Nguessan ordered security forces not to attack foreigners. "I want to reassure the foreign population and tell them that they have nothing to fear from the Ivorians or from the Ivorian nation," he said.
Signs that Thursday's attempt to oust President Laurent Gbagbo was turning into an ethnic conflict were evident as well in the northern opposition stronghold of Korhogo, one of two cities still held by rebels.
Rebels told residents of the largely Muslim city that the government had recruited Angolan soldiers to "kill northerners," and urged young men to take up arms and join them.
This former French colony's plummet into chaos began before dawn Thursday. Insurgents, apparently including hundreds of recently sacked soldiers, launched coordinated attacks on military installations, government sites, and Cabinet ministers' houses in five cities and towns.
Loyalist forces quelled the uprising in Abidjan after 12 hours of fighting Thursday that left scores dead on the government side, including a Cabinet minister, senior military officers and dozens of paramilitary police.
Paramilitary police shot and killed the deposed junta chief whom the government accuses in the coup attempt, Gen. Robert Guei. Paramilitary police also killed his wife, son and grandchildren.
On Saturday, rebels still controlled Korhogo and the central town of Bouake, about 220 miles north of Abidjan.
Residents in the rebel-held towns were hunkered down in their homes Saturday night, waiting anxiously.
"We hear shots now and then. We are really scared and we have not been able to buy much food," one man in Bouake said by telephone. He declined to give his name.
Gbagbo, returning home late Friday after cutting short a state visit to Italy, said in a speech broadcast on state television that government forces would flush out the remaining rebels in Abidjan, and then move toward the two cities still held by the rebels.
"The hour of battle has come. Let's lead it with courage. Let's lead it with determination. Let's lead it with honor," he said.
Witnesses saw 12 trucks full of loyalist soldiers heading toward the capital Yamoussoukro from Abidjan on Saturday, but it was not clear if they were going all the way to rebel-held Bouake, about 60 miles further north.
This latest coup attempt shattered efforts to restore stability to once-tranquil Ivory Coast after its first-ever coup in 1999. The mayhem in Ivory Coast raised fears that the nation was falling into the violence that ravaged neighbors Liberia and Sierra Leone for a decade.
Gbagbo hinted at foreign involvement in the uprising, but did not name any countries. A security official in Burkina Faso said Angolan troops who allegedly arrived in Abidjan on Friday had been seen heading to Bouake in small groups. The official declined to be identified.
Angolan government officials have denied any involvement and the Ivorian government has said it did not ask for support.
Opposition leader Alassane Dramane Ouattara sought refuge at French Embassy, fearing he would be blamed for the coup. Simmering tensions between Gbagbo, who draws his support from the mainly Christian south and west, and Ouattara's mainly Northern Muslim backers have regularly exploded, killing hundreds.