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Ivory Coast Defense Minister: Offensive on Rebel-Held Areas Imminent


People in rebel-held areas of central and northern Ivory Coast are bracing for what the government Thursday said will be a major offensive against insurgents. The warning came as French troops evacuated westerners from the central city of Bouake.

French troops on Thursday began moving hundreds of French nationals and others out of Bouake, Ivory Coast's second largest city.

The operation was carried out after French soldiers secured the main road out of the city toward the political capital, Yamoussoukro.

Ivory Coast's Defense Minister Moise Lida Kouassi appeared on state television Thursday, declaring that government forces were about to begin an offensive against mutinous soldiers who are holding Bouake in the center of the country, and the town of Korhogo in the north.

He said the regions of Bouake and Korhogo were being declared war zones. The defense minister said that anyone who is found in these areas bearing arms outside of the army will be treated as an enemy of the nation. Mr. Kouassi called on all dissidents in the region to surrender to the government. The armed forces of Ivory Coast, the defense minister said, will be called to do their duty.

Mr. Kouassi said the government remained open to negotiations with the renegade soldiers, who launched a series of coordinated attacks in Bouake, Korhogo, and Abidjan on September 19.

After intense fighting that killed at least 270 people last week, loyalist forces brought Abidjan under government control. Witnesses in Bouake on Thursday said they counted about 100 bodies of soldiers at the city's morgue.

As the government prepared for an offensive on rebel-held areas, Nigeria dispatched three fighter jets to help loyalist forces. Nigerian officials said the action was taken at the recommendation of the multi-national Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS.

ECOWAS ministers plan to an emergency meeting in Abidjan on Sunday to discuss a course of action, which could include the deployment of a multi-national West African peacekeeping force.

Hundreds rallied in Abidjan Thursday in support of the government Thursday.

In Bouake, demonstrators took to the streets to show their support of the mutinous soldiers. They called for the removal of President Laurent Gbagbo.

The evacuation of French nationals from Bouake came after French troops moved a group of 160 school children most of them Americans and 39 staffers from a missionary school in Bouake to neighboring Ghana.

U.S. troops have been standing by to assist with evacuation efforts. The United States on Thursday called on Americans to leave Ivory Coast.