After crisis, Ivory Coast still edgy

Thursday, 20 Americans were flown out, while some 700 foreigners still seek to be evacuated.

Now comes the hard part.

Even as some 20 Americans flew out of here on a US C-130 cargo plane Thursday following a week trapped at a missionary school in Bouaké, the government is looking to resolve long-standing religious and ethnic tensions that have bubbled to the surface.

This is a country on edge.

At a makeshift barricade of logs and old furniture at the edge of Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast's forlorn capital, jittery, beret-clad government soldiers clutch AK-47s and M-16s. Men and women file slowly off buses and out of cars and are patted down, their luggage searched for weapons.

Suddenly, shots. Heads snap and guns raise. But it is only a careless soldier who has let his weapon discharge. His superior officer, a tiny, helmeted man in green army fatigues, berates him. Citizens are anxious to get home before the 8 p.m. military curfew.

French troops took 191 American, Canadian, and Dutch students and faculty from the International Christian Academy to safety Wednesday. There are still an estimated 700 foreigners are looking to leave the besieged town, according to the French defense minister. The French military say that roads from Bouaké are now clear, and rebels agreed Thursday to a two-day cease-fire allowing the French to remove all foreign nationals.

But French and American troops, which are helping to facilitate the evacuation, are not expected to stay on to pick up the pieces after their nationals have been lifted out.

Long-standing ethnic tensions are believed to be at the heart of an alleged attempted coup by dissident soldiers that has left as many as 350 people dead. A Muslim-Christian faultline, similar to those found in other postcolonial African nations such as Nigeria and Sudan, cuts through Ivory Coast.

"The thing that's really worrying is the growing xenophobia towards people who have been in the country for a long time," says Richard Cornwall, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg, South Africa. "It's been growing for about the last 10 years since ... the economy went into decline."

For four decades, this former French colony was an oasis of calm in a region wracked by violence and ruled by dictators. While rebels in nearby Sierra Leone mutilated suspected opponents, and cities in Liberia changed hands between the government and rebels, cafes in the port city of Abidjan served up warm croissants and French espresso to the city's cosmopolitan citizens.

But rivalries were simmering just below the surface. The north is largely Muslim, and the south, which has controlled the central government for most of the country's intendance, is primarily Christian. Over the past three years, the Ivory Coast has had several coup attempts – including last week's unsuccessful one – and a disputed election that ended in violence.

For the first 35 years after independence, the Ivory Coast, one of the continent's most cosmopolitan and pro-European countries, was ruled by a benevolent dictator, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who had close ties to France. He died in 1990.

During the reign of Mr. Houphouët-Boigny, ethnic rivalries were repressed. He was a Christian, but from the northern town of Yamoussoukro, then little more than one of many tiny villages cut into Ivory Coast's semitropical forest. Yamoussoukro is dominated by a gigantic white basilica, one of the world's largest. It dwarfs a small mosque nearby – a visual symbol of the country's power structure.

On Christmas Eve 1999, a military coup toppled the 39-year rule of Houphouët-Boigny's party and put military leader Robert Guei in power. Abidjan still bears the scars of that uprising.

Within a year, however, elections changed the balance of power again. Guei – who was killed execution-style by paramilitaries with his family last week – claimed victory. But a popular uprising forced him to hand power to Mr. Gbagbo, a member of Houphouët-Boigny's party.

Discontent from that period still lingers between government supporters – Christians from the south – and supporters of the main opposition leader, Alassane Outtara, a northern Muslim, who was excluded from the election.

The specific cause of the violence over the past week is disputed. The government says that it was begun by 700 disgruntled troops angry at their coming demobilization. They are said to have been dismissed because they were still loyal to Guei.

Mr. Outtara, who has taken refuge in the French embassy, claims the coup was sparked by the government as an excuse to crack down supporters of his party. He says there were attempts on his life by the government and that Guei's death was a government-led assassination.

Rebel troops were driven from Abidjan within 12 hours of the start of the fighting. They fled to Bouaké and Korhogo – two primarily Muslim cities in the North – which are still seeing sporadic violence.

Students and faculty at the International Missionary School were trapped when the fighting began.

"We were hunkered down for seven days, fuel and water running low," says Michel Cousineau, business manager and security chief at the school. "So when the French arrived, we were delighted to see them."

Students have been kept from speaking to the press, and immediate plans for the school are unclear.

Immigrants and foreign powers, particularly Muslim neighbor Burkino Faso, as well as Mali and Liberia, are blamed for the violence.

"The rebels are not popular," says Didier Kouadeo as he cuts the grass outside the Yamoussoukro airport. "People think that a lot of them are foreigners who've come here for jobs."

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