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Ivory Coast braces for civil war

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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.

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