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Ivory Coast braces for civil war

West African leaders met in Ghana Sunday to discuss deploying troops to end the 12-day rebellion.

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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.

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