Officials are considering sending U.S. special operations forces into Ivory Coast to rescue dozens of American children trapped in their school after rebels seized the West African country's second largest city in the wake of a failed coup.
The American ambassador has called for military assistance, and officials told ABCNEWS the U.S. military has already established a presence in the country — a small military assessment team of fewer than a dozen personnel.
In nearby Ghana, the U.S. military's European Command is assembling about 100 special operations personnel that might be used in the operation.
Earlier today, U.S. Defense Department sources told ABCNEWS fewer than 200 American soldiers from the European Command were on their way to the region.
"We asked our European Command to move some troops into the area to be available to provide for the safety of American citizens should that prove necessary," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in his briefing.
"Their mandate is to be available as necessary to take action that can help ensure the safety of American citizens," he said.
France already has hundreds of troops in Ivory Coast, a former colony with which it still maintains close ties. U.S. military officials told ABCNEWS they hoped the French soldiers would be able to handle the evacuation operation.
If not, officials say the special forces troops will assemble an armed motorcade to escort the children and staff out of the school, the International Christian Academy, and then out of the besieged town of Bouake.
The evacuees will not be taken out of the country — only to different parts of the country, officials said. They said if the U.S. troops are needed, they could be moved quickly.
As rescue operations go, officials describe this as "modest." But the State Department today urged U.S. citizens in the Ivory Coast cities of Abidjan, Bouake and Korhogo to remain close to home, to observe government curfew restrictions and to remain in close communication with the American Embassy.
It also issued a travel warning recommending that Americans take actions "they deem appropriate to ensure their well-being, including consideration of departure from the affected areas when this becomes possible. "
No Hostile Approach
The academy is a boarding school for children of missionaries. James Forlines, director of Free Will Baptist Foreign Missions, the Mission running the school, told ABCNEWS a total of 199 people are in the school compound — 101 Americans, 23 Canadians, along with a number of other nationalities.
Forlines, speaking from his organization's headquarters in Tennesee, said 160 to 165 of those in the compound were between the ages of 6 and 18.
"The action is very much in their immediate vicinity, and it's much heavier than it has been before," Forlines said.
"They're still hunkered down," he said. "They're still in their dorms, and I understand that, you know, spirits have sagged a little bit during the day. But I think, perhaps, some of this news may brighten their day a little."
He said the trapped children and adults have enough supplies for several days, but fuel is running short for the generator, and the electricity and water have been turned off.
So far, the rebels have made no "hostile approach" toward the school, and everyone inside is OK, he said. One of the dorm "fathers", a 39-year-old, died of a heart attack on Friday, but it was completely unrelated to the coup, Forlines said.
"We are hoping and praying that immediately someone will go in there and evacuate them out before it's too late," Forlines told ABCNEWS:
The violence, which began last week, is believed to be the latest outbreak in a chain of civil unrest that began with Gen. Robert Guei's coup in December 1999.
Before then, Ivory Coast had been seen as an oasis of stability in a region torn by some of the continent's most brutal wars.
Two major military rebellions and disputed elections followed the coup, and since then, the country has fractured between Guei's supporters, President Laurent Gbagbo, and top opposition leader Alassane Dramane Ouattara, and between the mainly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south.
The insurgents held responsible for the latest coup attempt in the commercial capital, Abidjan, and other cities are suspected to include a core group of 700 to 800 ex-soldiers angry over their recent purge from the army for suspected loyalty to Guei. Guei was killed in the first hours of the latest uprising.
The uprising was quickly put down, and the rebels withdrew to Bouake, and to the northern city of Korhogo.
No Westerners are yet known to have been hurt in the fighting.
ABCNEWS' John McWethy at the Pentagon and Matt Frucci in New York contributed to this report.