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Wednesday, 25 September, 2002, 08:35 GMT 09:35 UK
US in Ivory Coast rescue mission
Undated photo of the International Christian academy in Bouake where the children are holed up
Bouake: About 160 children are trapped in a school
US troops have landed in West Africa to safeguard about 160 American schoolchildren trapped by fighting in a town in Ivory Coast.

The children are in Bouake, which is still held by rebel soldiers who staged an uprising against the government of President Gbagbo.

French troops
French troops are also on standby

Three US military planes have arrived in neighbouring Ghana carrying an estimated 200 troops and equipment.

The deployment - at the request of the US ambassador - comes as Ivorian army troops are trying to recapture Bouake.

France - the former colonial power - has also reinforced its military presence in Ivory Coast with the intention of evacuating foreigners.

A force of about 250 French soldiers is 60 km from Bouake, a French military spokesman told the BBC's World Today programme.

A total of about 300 Americans and 600 French nationals are trapped in Bouake from where there were reports of continued heavy fighting..

An Ivorian journalist trapped in a hotel in the town told the World Today that there had been hours of gunfire on Tuesday between the rebel soldiers occupying the town and government forces.

The rebels still controlled much of the town, he said, and were patrolling in vehicles.

A special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General met the Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo and urged him to find a peaceful end to the country's five-day-old rebel uprising.

Coup claim

Heavy shooting has been reported close to a Christian school housing some 160, mainly American, children. The AFP agency says that some shots appeared to be fired at the school.

Ups and downs
Before 1999 - Relative calm and stability
1999 - Coup; General Guei takes power
2000 - Guei flees after rigging elections;
Gbagbo wins controversial elections
2001 - coup attempt fails
2002 Troops mutiny, Guei killed

A US Navy spokesman said the troops would "go there and assist in moving American citizens from the Christian Academy, where they are, to a safe location, still within Ivory Coast".

In an interview with the BBC, Lieutenant-Commander Donald Sewell said that the US forces were in West Africa, "to be in a closer position to be able to provide for the safety of American citizens".

He denied that they had a specific military operation planned but said that the US forces were in close contact with the French military units in Ivory Coast.

The French military spokesman told the BBC that the French troops were liaising with American and British officers in Abidjan.

The military uprising began last week when the rebels attacked in Abidjan and took control of Bouake and the northern town of Korhogo. The government quickly suppressed the uprising in the commercial capital.

Three national African football teams who were competing in a tournament are also trapped in a hotel in Bouake.

Rebel soldiers say they are protesting at plans to expel them from the army. The government has accused them of trying to stage a coup.

Slaves

A rebel soldier, calling himself Corporal Kwasi, told the BBC's Network Africa that it was not a coup but the soldiers were fighting a dictatorship.

"We started the rebellion because the current regime is a dictatorship hiding under the guise of democracy," he said.

The soldier said the government had used the soldiers for three years and then had tried to sack them - they felt they had been treated like "slaves".

Corporal Kwasi also accused the government of using Angolan soldiers in the operation to recapture Bouake - he said the rebels had been involved in heavy fighting with the Angolans on Tuesday.

There has been no independent confirmation of the presence of Angolan troops in Bouake.

No evacuation

UN special representative Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, who has gone to Ivory Coast, told Mr Gbagbo that the country must not be allowed to slip further into crisis.

Ivorian soldier
"Get talking, do anything, but don't open unnecessary violence," he told him.

The administrator of the Christian school, Michel Cousineau, told AFP news agency that many of the children were frightened.

Mr Cousineau said three military trucks carrying 60 soldiers were outside the school.

"They are sweeping the area and firing shots from time to time. Gunfire is going on in the distance, and it's heavy at times," he said.

A regional summit called to discuss the conflict in Ivory Coast, due to be held in Morocco on Thursday, has been postponed.

Moroccan and Gabonese officials are both reported as saying the meeting has been put off until it is certain that Mr Gbagbo can attend.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Paul Welsh in Abidjan
"The French seem to be preparing to do the majority of the work"

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25 Sep 02 | Africa
22 Sep 02 | Africa
24 Sep 02 | Africa
24 Sep 02 | Africa
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