What began as an apparent coup attempt in Ivory Coast's commercial center, Abidjan, is looking increasingly like the prelude to civil war.
The country is now effectively partitioned, with rebel soldiers controlling most of the country's major northern cities and many of the smaller district centers between the north and the south.
In recent days, the exodus from the north has increased from a trickle to a steady flow. With children in tow and their worldly belongings balanced on their heads, thousands have left their besieged city, Bouaké, and marched toward the capital, Yamoussoukro.
"The entrances and exits are all blocked now," says a nervous university student, who gave his name only as Jean. Jean says he walked 30 miles under cover of night before finally catching a bus to the capital city. "The only way out is on foot."
It is no longer just Westerners who are fleeing; many Ivorians, too, are getting out while they can. Aid workers are bringing worrying information about the deteriorating situation in the north.
"Most of the gendarmes [government military police] have fled," says a Peace Corps volunteer who made her way from her posting near the northern city of Korhogo to Yamoussoukro. "The rebels came to my village and said they were going to attack. But the gendarmes were already gone."
Last Thursday, some 2,000 Westerners were evacuated from Bouaké, and French and US troops evacuated 250 more from Korhogo early yesterday, including some 30 Peace Corps volunteers and American missionaries. At the Yamoussoukro airport, Westerners and a few African nationals filed off deafening C-130 cargo planes, clutching backpacks and trailing rolling suitcases.
"We've been waiting for 10 days for them to come for us," says one American. Embassy officials herded foreign nationals onto a bus heading out of this decaying city of abandoned granite buildings and four-lane highways that lead to nowhere.
This exodus of whites from the north harkens back to Africa's independence days, when Belgians, Portuguese, and British fled new nation-states that had just been handed over to African rulers. But unlike those days, when Africans cheered the departure of whites as the beginning of a new African-led era, today the exodus of Westerners brings concern. "When the whites are gone, it's a bad sign," Jean predicts pessimistically. "That's when the fighting will really begin."
The Ivorian government has declared the center and north of the country a war zone and plans an offensive that could start as early as Monday.
The government has asked for support from former colonial power France and other West African nations in subduing the rebels, whom it calls terrorists. The government says the rebels are funded and supported by neighboring countries such as Burkina Faso and Liberia, but no hard evidence of this link has been established.
The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, as well as the head of the African Union, South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki, met in Ghana yesterday to discuss the possibility of deploying troops, though Ivory Coast is asking for transportation and munitions, not personnel. Nigerian war planes have already landed in Abidjan.
France says it will will provide transport, communications assistance, and food, but will not order its soldiers to fight. France and Ivory Coast maintain a defense pact that calls for France to intervene in Ivory Coast in any foreign-backed conflict. France says that evidence of foreign involvement is not yet clear, so it will continue to play only a supporting role.
But even with foreign help, extricating the rebels from the cities where they now hold strategic positions and have seized government weapons and barracks, will not be easy. Attempts to retake Bouaké and other northern cities have so far failed, with fleeing residents saying government forces were easily turned back.
"The government came and tried to fight the rebels, but they were all killed," says Vincent Corbel, a French citizen who was working at a malaria research center when rebels took the city last week.
Although it is now clear that rebel soldiers control much of the north, little else is known about them. They have no known leader and say they have no ties to any political group or foreign nation.
At least some of the rebels are mutinying soldiers from the Ivorian Army, and say they are tired of being treated as foreigners because they come from the largely Muslim north. The Ivory Coast has been ruled by Christian southerners since independence, and many northerners resent their lack of political power and suggestions that they are not truly Ivorian, as the government has implied.
"I am a professional soldier, a member of the 3rd Battalion of the Army of the Ivory Coast, and I am no rebel," says Sgt. Dauda Konate, a red beret-clad rebel at a checkpoint outside Bouaké. "But when the government starts to say all foreigners are rebels, all outsiders are enemies of the government, then we must stand up and say no."
Refugees and evacuees say the rebels are well-organized and well-behaved. So far, they say, mutinying soldiers have attacked only military targets and, in several cases, have escorted citizens to safety. There are also reports that looting soldiers have been severely punished, even killed, by superiors.
Despite some reassuring actions of the rebels, the mood here is one of nervous anticipation. Fighting has so far been minimal, and reports of fatalities are unconfirmed. But many fear this is simply the calm before the storm.
"We're sitting here asking God to solve this problem," says Konate Souleymane, worker in Yamoussoukro. "We don't know what will happen now, but we are very afraid."
Food supplies in many occupied cities are running low and communications have largely been cut off.
"We Ivorians never knew war," Oulai Boniface Medard, the lone guard outside Yamoussoukro's now ghostly-quiet university, says sadly. Shaking his head, he adds: "But now we are fighting each other. Why?"