ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Government troops battled insurgents outside a rebel-held city Monday as French troops moved in and stood ready to evacuate foreigners if needed -- including some 100 American children caught up in a bloody military uprising.
Ranging from infants to 12-year-olds, the young Americans are among 200 foreigners holed up at a boarding school for children of missionaries in Bouake, a besieged city that has been in rebel hands since they launched a coup attempt four days ago. The uprising killed at least 270 people in its first days.
"Right now, the children are safe but it's a tenuous situation," James Forlines, director of Freewill Baptist Foreign Missions, which has missionaries in the region, said of children at the International Christian Academy.
"They are absolutely defenseless and are pinned down and have no way to get out," said Forlines, speaking from Nashville, Tenn., where his organization is based.
The half-million residents of Bouake are braced for a showdown between insurgents and government forces, who military sources say have surrounded the former French colony's mainly Muslim second-largest city.
Just in case, French troops with trucks and helicopters set up camp Monday at an airport outside the capital Yamoussoukro, just 40 miles from Bouake.
Their mission: to ensure the safety of the roughly French citizens and other Western nationals and, if necessary, to get them out. There are about 20,000 French nationals in the Ivory Coast.
French forces intended to be "as close as possible for all eventualities and to dissuade anyone from endangering the security of our nationals," French Col. Charles de Kersabiec said at Yamoussoukro.
The U.S. Embassy said Sunday it had no immediate evacuation plans for its nationals.
Bouake has become a key flashpoint in a crisis that has raised the specter of this once-stable country being gripped by the kind of endemic violence that has ravaged neighbors Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The uprising was also opening up deadly ethnic and religious rivalries between the mainly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south in a nation that was once an oasis of stability in a region scarred by some of Africa's most brutal wars.
The rebels' choice to take refuge in mainly Muslim cities has underscored the country's religious and ethnic fault lines that lie behind hundreds of deaths since the country's first coup in 1999. The same rifts have split the nation's security forces.
Rebels also control the northern town of Korhogo, an opposition stronghold. They said Monday they had also captured Boundiali, to the west. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a rebel source said some loyalist troops, including two senior officers, had defected in Bouake.
There was no word on the claims from the government, and they could not be independently verified.
The insurgents apparently include a core group of 700-800 ex-soldiers angry over their recent purge from the army for suspected disloyalty.
The ex-soldiers behind the uprising are believed to have been purged because they were seen as loyal to the country's former junta leader, Gen. Robert Guei, killed by paramilitaries in the first hours of the uprising.
Authorities have said that Guei, who installed a military regime after the country's first coup in 1999, was behind the bloodletting -- but Guei's family and aides have denied his involvement, as have some rebels.