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Standoff Continues in Ivory Coast - 2002-09-23


French troops in Ivory Coast are preparing to evacuate hundreds of French nationals from the rebel-held city of Bouake as the government gets ready for a major offensive. A standoff continues between the government and rebels.

French troops have assembled at the airport of the political capital, Yamoussoukro. They are awaiting instructions from Paris on when and how to retrieve the approximately 600 French nationals who are caught in Bouake.

The city, along with Korhogo in the north, remains under rebel control following a soldier mutiny on Thursday that the government here describes as a coup attempt. Officials say at least 270 people were killed, most of them in Abidjan where loyalist soldiers put down the rebellion.

The government has sent a military convoy in the direction of Bouake and officials have vowed to launch a major assault on the city unless the rebels surrender.

The rebels have said they will not lay down their weapons until the government agrees to their demands, which include their reintegration into the army, freedom for imprisoned rebels, and better salaries.

Among those trapped in Bouake are about 100 American children at an English-language boarding school run by U.S. missionaries. They are the children of American missionaries and others who work across the West African region.

The U.S. Embassy has advised Americans to remain on alert, but so far has no plans for any evacuation.

Most residents of Bouake stayed indoors for yet another day Monday. A few ventured out onto the streets, searching for food. One resident told VOA there appears to be no shortage of food, but the city's water supply has been cut for unexplained reasons.

The main city, Abidjan, began returning to normal Monday as some offices and stores opened for the first time since Thursday. Tension remained high, however, as people awaited word on whether the government will agree to enter negotiations with the rebels or will go ahead with an attack on Bouake and Korhogo.

The administration of President Laurent Gbagbo is under increasing pressure by western diplomats here to engage the rebels in dialogue. Mutinous soldiers in Korhogo and Bouake said on Sunday they would be willing to negotiate with the government if a third party, such as France, would participate. French officials say they have no plans to get involved, other than to protect their nationals.

Observers here describe the recent unrest as among the most serious disturbances in the history of this former French colony, once considered a model for stability in West Africa. That image was shattered in 1999 when Ivory Coast experienced its first-ever military coup, led by General Robert Guei. General Guei was among those killed in Thursday's violence. The government accuses him leading the latest mutiny - a charge that rebels deny.

Members of the opposition and at least one French newspaper, Liberation, stepped up their criticism of the government Monday, accusing Gbagbo supporters of using the mutiny to crack down on opponents.

Most of Mr. Gbagbo's well-known political opponents remained in hiding, many of them at foreign diplomatic missions.

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