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U.S. forces to protect Americans in Ivory Coast

Schoolchildren trapped in crossfire

A convoy of French soldiers leave the Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, airport to move closer to rebel-held Bouake.
A convoy of French soldiers leave the Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, airport to move closer to rebel-held Bouake.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With about 200 schoolchildren and staffers trapped in the crossfire of a military rebellion, U.S. Special Forces were headed to the Ivory Coast to help protect Americans there, U.S. military officials said Tuesday.

The military contingent would be made up of about 200 heavily armed U.S. Special Forces troops who are expected to land either outside Abidjan, the capital of the West Africa nation, or in neighboring Ghana, officials said.

Ivory Coast government forces are cooperating with the deployment, officials said, and French troops already in the region have agreed to back up the U.S. troops.

The French troops in recent days secured an airport about 40 miles from the school and moved in on a road near the campus. The American troops could escort U.S. nationals to safer locations within the Ivory Coast.

"The U.S. is committed to ensuring the safety of its citizens and U.S. forces in the Ivory Coast region and remains ready for all contingencies," said a statement from the military. "We are monitoring the situation in the Ivory Coast and will be available to ensure safety."

Military sources said the troops' priority would retrieving the students and staff from the school, and to protect Americans in other Ivory Coast towns still in rebel hands. There are about 2,000 Americans in the country.

The boarding school where the children are trapped is just outside the city of Bouake, which has been in rebel hands since last Thursday when the uprising began.

The fighting is not targeting the school, but the school is located between the sparring factions. For the past three nights, rebels and Ivory Coast government troops have exchanged heavy gunfire and mortar shelling around the school.

Violence broke out in Ivory Coast when insurgents revolted in Abidjan last Thursday. They had been deemed disloyal and let go from the army, and their revolt quickly spread. At least 270 people have been killed and hundreds more wounded in the violence nationwide.

The rebels said they were loyal to the country's former leader, Gen. Robert Guei, who seized power in a military coup in 1999 but lost it in elections last year. Guei was killed in the first day of fighting.

Shelling, mortar fire

School officials remained on edge Tuesday, but were relieved that the U.S. troops were coming.

"We were just ecstatic, overjoyed to know that help is on the way," said Clint Morgan in Nashville, Tennessee, whose organization, Free Will Baptist Foreign Missions, helped found the school. "They had just really reached the point of 'We're stuck here.'"

The State Department has a toll-free hotline for Americans to call if they have relatives in the area. The number is 1-888-407-4747.

The school, called the International Christian Academy, serves the children of missionaries in West Africa. It has 160 schoolchildren, including 101 Americans ages 6 to 18, on the campus. An additional 39 other people -- staffers and their children, some of whom are infants -- also are at the school.

The children and personnel have had some harrowing moments, Morgan said. At one point, a truck drove on to the campus and "cut loose," firing 50-caliber machine gun rounds in all directions, he said. At other times, mortar and artillery shelling lasted for about two hours, he said.

No one on campus has been wounded. The children have been told to put their heads down every time the fighting intensifies, and counselors at the school are trying to help the youngsters cope, Morgan said.

"We are very fortunate," he said. "We think the children are doing miraculously well."

The school has enough supplies and food to last about another five to seven days, but Morgan said he hopes they won't need it. "We do appreciate the help we are getting from the U.S. government," he said. "We are pleased."

U.S. watching

In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer refused to go into details about the U.S. forces, but he said the U.S. government is closely monitoring the situation.

"We do have a concern about the safety of Americans who are in the Ivory Coast," he said.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher echoed that sentiment.

"At this point we're not planning an evacuation of official or non-official Americans, but we do have these concerns about the safety of American citizens who in parts of the country are located where there appears to be fighting," Boucher said.

The State Department has a hotline for Americans to call if they have relatives in the area. The number is 1-888-407-4747.

Officials fear that the school could get caught in government-forces fire aimed at a military school located nearby. Rebels are using the military school.

The American Embassy in Abidjan was closed Tuesday, but officials there were providing emergency services to Americans in the country, State Department officials said.

--CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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