ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- France sent reinforcements and helicopters to the Ivory Coast on Sunday to protect Westerners in the former French colony after a coup attempt threatened to split apart West Africa's one-time economic power house.
While the government readied a counterattack against rebels behind the country's bloodiest military uprising, thousands of people in Bouake, a central city controlled by coup forces, marched to declare their allegiance to the insurgents.
Shooting was heard late Sunday in Bouake, but whether it signaled the start of a government assault on the rebels was uncertain. The government said the uprising has left at least 270 dead, including a Cabinet minister and a former military ruler.
Since Ivory Coast's first coup shattered the peace in 1999, ethnic, political and religious tensions have regularly exploded between the mainly Christian south and west and Muslim northerners. Hundreds have died, even before the latest outbreak of violence.
Rifts have also widened in the country's security branches since the coup, often along political, ethnic or regional lines. That apparently led to the recent army purge.
Simmering tensions have regularly exploded between President Laurent Gbagbo, who draws his support from the mainly Christian south and west, and backers of opposition leader Alassane Dramane Ouattara in the predominantly Muslim north. Hundreds have been killed in three previous years of street battles.
'Armed to the teeth'
After Thursday's coup attempt, rebels still control the northern opposition stronghold of Korhogo and the central town of Boauke, 220 miles north of Abidjan.
"We are armed to the teeth, and there is no going back," said a rebel commander with the nom de guerre Samsara 110. He spoke from Korhogo, a rebel stronghold in the predominantly Muslim north.
In Bouake, Ivory Coast's second-largest city, residents cheered rebels who geared for battle against government troops. Gbagbo's government has pledged an imminent offensive to drive out the insurgents and retake the north.
French transport helicopters and a reported 100 extra French troops landed in Abidjan, the commercial capital, in the early hours Sunday to reinforce approximately 600 troops already based there. Ivory Coast was a French colony until 1960.
France said it deployed the troops to protect the nation's 20,000 French citizens and other westerners. The French Embassy said it could evacuate citizens from Bouake if necessary.
Thursday's failed coup was launched by insurgents who apparently included a core group of 700-800 ex-soldiers angry over their recent purge from the army for suspected disloyalty.
Among those killed in the uprising was the Ivory Coast's former military ruler, Gen. Robert Guei. The government said Guei sparked the new coup attempt, a contention increasingly challenged by diplomats and the rebels.
Defeated in Abidjan and two other cities, coup forces have dug in the north, the base of support for opposition leader Alassane Dramane Ouattara.
Ghana's foreign minister and officials from Nigeria and Togo headed to Ivory Coast on a peace mission to Ivory Coast. West African leaders fear the fighting will undermine efforts toward regional development.
"Since Gbagbo came to power, he has been killing our families. We are fed up with him," one young man said in Bouake, bellowing as crowds cheering the rebels chanted and whistled around him.
In Paris, Gbagbo spokesman Toussaint Alain blamed the uprising on other countries. The accusation was widely believed aimed at the Muslim nation of Burkina Faso, on Ivory Coast's northern border.
Alain called the insurgents "pseudo-rebels" and "dogs of war, mercenaries ... paid by foreigners."
The presidential spokesman said the government had proof that the rebels were using "foreign equipment" and receiving supplies by air. He said they were supported by "hooligan states who want to play policeman while they are unable to install a democratic regime."
Ivory Coast previously has accused Burkina Faso of providing haven and support to armed Ivorian dissidents.
Burkina Faso has beefed security along its borders since Thursday's uprising. Liberia, to the west, also has said it had reinforced its borders.
Since Friday, government convoys have been rolling north to the central capital, Yamoussoukro, gearing up for an attack on rebel enclaves to the north.
There were claims from nongovernment sources this weekend that rebels had captured at least three other towns near the Burkina Faso border to keep their airstrips out of the hands of Ivory Coast loyalists.
Those claims could not be independently verified.
In Korhogo, rebel commander Samsara 110 claimed there were 1,000 rebels in Bouake, 780 in Korhogo and more hiding in Abidjan.
With supplies including weapons from captured government garrisons, "We have the maximum of material," Samsara said.
Loyalists claimed Sunday to have surrounded Bouake. Only the desire to spare lives has prevented an immediate attack there, one senior Ivory Coast military source claimed in an interview with The Associated Press.
In Abidjan, meanwhile, the Red Cross and other international organizations sought shelter for 3,871 people displaced by the coup violence in Ivory Coast's commercial capital.
Hundreds lost their homes on Friday and Saturday when police burned a mostly Muslim shantytown near their base.
The U.S. Embassy said it had no immediate plans to evacuate its citizens in Ivory Coast.