French and US forces today began an air evacuation of a second threatened Ivory Coast city, swooping in by helicopters to pluck up Westerners in the remote, rebel-held city of Korhogo.
French and US C-130 military cargo planes flew the evacuees to hoped-for safety in Yamoussoukro, capital of Ivory Coast and staging area for Western rescue missions amid the once-tranquil West African nation’s deadliest-ever rebellion.
Shortly after Westerners arrived, however, reports of gunfire and fighting at Yamoussoukro itself reached authorities, although Associated Press reporters at the airport and in the city centre did not immediately hear gunfire.
Three buses of American evacuees that had headed out from the airport quickly returned, under escort of a US soldiers – signalling, at a minimum, rising tensions ahead of a threatened showdown between Ivory Coast’s rebels and loyalists.
The evacuation comes in the face of what Ivory Coast’s government says will be an all-out attack to retake Korhogo and the larger, central city of Bouake, both in rebel hands since a bloody failed coup attempt on September 19.
About 270 people died in the uprising’s first days.
West African leaders were due to meet later today in Ghana when they were expected to approve deployment of a West African military force on behalf of the beleaguered government of Ivory Coast, a former French colony.
French troops led an evacuation of more than 2,000 Westerners from Bouake on Thursday and Friday.
The new operation rescuing Westerners in Korhogo began before dawn, with military helicopters rushing the 250 kilometres (180 miles) north from Yamoussoukro.
By 8am, troops had secured the Korhogo airport, about 15 kms (10 miles) outside of the city.
Helicopters picked up the evacuees at points around Korhogo, bringing them back to the Korhogo airport for collection and flight out to Yamoussoukro.
US and French soldiers, flanked by others with assault rifles, welcomed the evacuees – many of whom applauded with a French officer spoke in welcome.
US soldiers handed babies and children out side doors, and passed luggage hand-to-hand down the ramp.
Western diplomatic officials said the evacuation was expected to carry several hundred French, Americans and other Westerners out of Korhogo – many of them missionaries and aid workers.
Rebels in recent days have been expanding their northern territory, taking the city of Odienne and moving south and west to secure their hold.
The evacuations leave thousands of Bouake’s half-million local residents trying to flee the area by foot, only to be turned back by rebel forces at checkpoints – who insist civilians must stay.