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Heavy Fighting Reported in Ivory Coast City of Bouake - 2002-09-24

Heavy fighting broke out between government troops and rebels in the Ivory Coast city of Bouake Tuesday, as U.S. special forces flew to the region on a mission to protect Americans in the city.

Among those trapped in Bouake are more than 100 American children and others at a missionary school.

Bouake and the northern town of Korhogo have been in the hands of anti-government forces since a mutiny began in the country last week, leaving at least 270 people dead in its first few days. Abidjan remains under government control.

The soldiers say they staged the mutiny in anger after the government decided to cut 700 of them as part of an effort to streamline the military. The government says the attacks were part of a coup attempt which it says was supported by an unidentified neighboring country.

The fighting raged in Bouake on Tuesday as loyalist troops entered the city and attacked rebel targets. Terrified residents reported the heavy machine-gun and mortar fire lasted for several hours.

Officials at the International Christian Academy in Bouake said heavy fighting took place within meters of the campus, terrifying the children. The school, along with the rest of the city, is without electricity and the water supply has been shut off for days.

The growing violence in Ivory Coast prompted U.S. officials to dispatch troops to the West African region Tuesday. Officials in neighboring Ghana said their country is to serve as a base for the American special forces.

U.S. officials did not give details about how the operation was to take place.

The U.S. special forces were dispatched at the request of U.S. ambassador to Ivory Coast, Arlene Render, who has been in contact with officials in the missionary school.

U.S. officials say there are thus far no plans for a general evacuation of the approximately 2,000 Americans who live in Ivory Coast, but they were continuing to monitor the situation.

France on Tuesday also sent additional forces to assist with the possible evacuation of hundreds of French nationals who live in Bouake. French troops have been camping at the airport in the political capital, Yamoussoukro, 100 kilometers away from Bouake. Late Tuesday, a convoy left the staging area in the direction of embattled city.

The upsurge in violence in Ivory Coast has heightened concerns among some who fear the latest fighting may signal the onset of a larger conflict in what was once a model for stability in the West African region.