Ivory coup

Africa | Surprise uprising in West Africa pins American students in a crossfire before their eventual rescue and evacuation

Issue: "False witnesses?," Oct. 5, 2002

Alan Shea, a faculty member at International Christian Academy in Ivory Coast, e-mailed friends: "Yes, we've hit the headlines of CNN, but then ... in our case this is not normally a good thing." Mr. Shea was writing as rebels tried to pull off a coup that jolted the most stable nation in West Africa. The 40-year-old school, with 200 students from 15 countries, was caught in the crossfire as government forces fought off rebel troops who took control of Bouake, the city where the school is located.

Students had spent a quiet night on Sept. 22, with director Daniel Grudda aware only of distant shooting and soldiers visible just outside the campus when he checked the generator just before dawn. By mid-morning Mr. Grudda was in touch with the U.S. embassy to warn that American students might be in danger. The school cancelled classes, and rationed water and conserved fuel for the generator.

At the same time, Mr. Shea patrolled dorms with two radios and a cell phone dangling from his belt. The cell phone was soon useless, as lines of communication along with the electricity and water were cut citywide. One radio kept Mr. Shea in touch with dorms while another put him in contact with guards.

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Security preparations paid off that evening as students left the dining hall after dinner and gathered outside near the gym. Gunfire and tracer bullets soon blanketed the campus. Firing came from all sides of the campus and soldiers briefly took up positions inside the school walls. Said Mr. Grudda, "Inside a building sitting down with their backs to the wall, people began looking for family members or friends as the shooting continued."

No one on campus was injured during the assault, but it became apparent that the school held a strategic spot between a nearby military school and rebel positions.

But word had gone out from West Africa to Washington. By the next day U.S. Special Forces were on their way to neighboring Ghana. They evacuated 191 American students and teachers as fresh fighting erupted on Sept. 25.

The government believes as many as 800 ex-soldiers are behind the uprising. Paramilitary police killed the group's leader, Gen. Robert Guei, in the first days of the coup attempt, when 270 others also died.


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