France Bolsters Ivory Coast Troops
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YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast (AP) _ The French bolstered their forces in Ivory Coast on Tuesday, flying in reinforcements and establishing a tactical command post for military action in its embattled former colony.
Rebel leaders said the French presence north of the capital city, Yamoussoukro, set up a buffer zone between insurgent forces and loyalist troops. The rebels said only the French troops were blocking their drive south to Yamoussoukro. The insurgents have held major northern and central cities since a bloody Sept. 19 uprising.
U.S. and French forces are deployed there by the hundreds, making the capital their base for any rescue missions in Ivory Coast’s deadliest uprising.
``It is possible that indirectly we have contributed to freezing the situation,″ French Lt. Col. Ange-Antoine Leccia acknowledged in Yamoussoukro.
Western authorities have reported regular clashes between rebels and loyalists north of Yamoussoukro. Heavy gunfire was reported Tuesday near Tiebissou, 25 miles north of Yamoussoukro.
France’s military announced in Paris that it was sending 70 more troops to Ivory Coast besides 600 forces regularly based here. Hundreds have been shifted from Gabon and other African countries since the crisis.
The troops will set up a tactical ground headquarters for the French in the commercial capital, Abidjan, French army spokesman Col. Christian Batiste said in Paris.
In the face of a threatened showdown, French and U.S. forces have evacuated 2,500 people _ mostly Westerners and other foreign nationals _ from the rebel-held cities of Bouake and Korhogo, and surrounding areas.
Foreigners still are trickling into Yamoussoukro from outlying regions. Eleven people, including seven Americans, were flown in by helicopter Monday before being taken to Accra, in Ghana.
Tuesday, U.S. forces were expected to go after a lone American _ a female Peace Corps worker, by herself at a posting by a remote lake.
French army officials in the region have repeatedly said they are not intervening in the conflict _ nor separating the rebels and loyalists _ but are simply assuring the safety of foreigners.
Western diplomats, however, said French forces have started providing tactical advice to government troops since agreeing last week to a request from Ivory Coast for logistic support.
Diplomats said that support was likely to include vehicles and other materiel, including food and uniforms.
Forces of the French Foreign Legion and French parachutists also have been newly visible in the area.
Increased French deployment came as West African foreign ministers interrupted their peace mission to Ivory Coast _ apparently unable to determine who spoke for the shadowy rebel side.
After talking late into the night with President Laurent Gbagbo, West African foreign ministers left Abidjan on Tuesday.
A senior African official close to the talks said the opening round with Gbagbo was a successful ``first step.″ The official said delegates were still trying to figure out who exactly to talk to among the rebels.
The six-nation delegation was created by a bloc of West African presidents, who fear regional destabilization if the conflict escalates.
Rebels seized control of Bouake, Ivory Coast’s second-largest city, and Korhogo when they launched their uprising Sept. 19 with a bloody coup attempt. They have since taken a third major population center, Odienne, and rebel advances since have divided Ivory Coast into government- and rebel-held zones.
Rebels say they now also Tiebissou, Didievei and Sakassou.
Ivory Coast accuses outside forces of arming and funding the insurgents. The accusation is believed directed at neighboring Burkina Faso, which has denied the charge despite years of animosity.