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Foreigners Evacuated from Rebel-Held Area of Ivory Coast - 2002-12-01

In Ivory Coast, the French military said it has successfully evacuated foreigners from rebel-held western towns, and will now begin withdrawing troops from that part of the country as government forces advance to retake the area.

A French military spokesman said the Foreign Legion had completed evacuation of about 160 foreigners from the towns of Man and Danane, in west Ivory Coast, at about 1:00 a.m. Sunday morning (local time).

These included 40 French, 60 Lebanese, 20 Africans and another 30 from other countries, including Russia. It is not yet clear whether any Americans were among them.

The foreign nationals were evacuated to Abidjan from Man airport, which the French seized from rebels after a long battle Saturday, during which one junior officer was wounded.

The French military spokesman in Daloa, Major Frederic Thomazo, said soldiers were ambushed by rebels as they drove toward Man airport on Saturday.

"We were attacked, and so we reposted and continued with our mission to take the airport," he said. The major said the army found 10 dead bodies around the airport, once the fighting had finished.

"We presume they were rebels, but since they were not all in uniform, it is difficult to tell," he said.

The fighting lasted several hours due to difficult vegetation, he said. The airport of Man, in the heart of Ivory Coast's coffee-growing region, is surrounded by tall grass and trees in a forested region, known as the Land of the 18 Mountains.

The French, who say their first priority is to evacuate foreign citizens and then to oversee the cease-fire between government troops in the south and another group of rebels in the north of the country, say they will now withdraw from that part of the country altogether.

Government forces are meanwhile advancing to retake the area, and to try to seize control of Man and Danane.