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Thursday, 26 September, 2002, 19:38 GMT 20:38 UK
French begin Ivory Coast evacuation
French troops in Bouake
The French have secured the main roads
French soldiers deployed in Ivory Coast have begun evacuating about 800 foreign citizens from the city of Bouake, the scene of heavy fighting between government and rebel forces.


It's sad for the locals. They're not going to be able to leave. We will pray for them

Jamal Bittar, French evacuee

The rebels, who seized Bouake as part of an uprising last week, said they would allow the evacuation to proceed and have agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire while it is carried out.

A group of schoolchildren, mainly Americans, who were allowed to leave the city yesterday have now started arrived in the neighbouring country of Ghana.

Thousands of residents took to the streets of Bouake earlier today to demonstrate their backing for the mutineers.

French troops have secured the main roads leading out of Bouake where the foreign nationals, mostly French, have begun to make their way in convoys of vehicles towards the capital, Yamoussoukro, 150 kilometres (93 miles) away.

"It's sad for the locals. They're not going to be able to leave. We will pray for them," said Jamal Bittar, a French citizen among the evacuees.

Correspondents warn the situation continues to be extremely dangerous after days of intense fighting, with reports of many bodies lying in the streets.

Poised for attack

The Ivorian Defence Minister Lida Moise Kouassi announced on television that the city was now a war zone.

Ivorian defence minister
The defence minister says an attack is imminent

He said loyalist troops were poised for a full-scale offensive to begin within hours against the rebels, who began their uprising on 19 September.

"In several hours, the national forces of Ivory Coast will be called upon to do their duty," the minister said, adding that anyone bearing arms in the towns would be considered enemies.

An Ivorian journalist in Bouake, Mohammed Fajah Barrie, told the BBC's Focus on Africa that civilians in Bouake had been demonstrating in favour of rebels and support for them in the town appeared to be growing.

Nigeria and Ghana have offered to send in troops and warplanes to support President Gbagbo.

Emergency summit

The West African regional organisation, Ecowas, announced it was going to hold an emergency summit this Sunday in Ivory Coast's main city, Abidjan, to discuss the current spate of violence.

Officials said the date was brought forward from the 5 October when the summit was to be held in Senegal's capital, Dakar.

The death toll in the rebellion has jumped after the discovery of more than 100 bodies in the town of Bouake, seized by mutinous troops last week.

A correspondent for Reuters news agency who visited a military school in the town said: "I was able to count 112 bodies.

"They were everywhere, lying in rooms and on paths. I was only able to look into a few of the rooms."

At least 270 people were reported dead in the first few days of the mutiny.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Paul Welsh
"The evacuation has been by road and by air"

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26 Sep 02 | Africa
26 Sep 02 | Africa
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24 Sep 02 | Africa
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