Ivory Coast Rebels to Hand Over U.S. Missionary

Rebels in Ivory Coast said on Sunday a U.S. missionary caught behind their lines was safe and well and would soon be handed over to the Red Cross so he could escape.

The U.S. embassy in the West African country declined to comment on the whereabouts of William Foster, a Lutheran missionary who had been living for the past eight years at Toulepleu near the Liberian border.

Toulepleu fell to rebels late in November, when two new rebel factions sprang up in western Ivory Coast to join a group that had held the northern half of the world's top cocoa producer since a failed September 19 coup.

"The American missionary is with us and we are making arrangements for him to be handed to the Red Cross," rebel Sergeant Bamba of the Movement for Justice and Peace told Reuters by satellite telephone.

"He is with a Lebanese man and a French woman and they are all safe and in good health," Bamba said.

Ivory Coast, once a haven of stability, was plunged into crisis by the failed putsch more than three months ago. Hundreds of people have been killed in fighting and tens of thousands driven from their homes.

French troops helped thousands of foreigners -- including scores of Americans -- escape during the early days of the war. The former colonial power is playing a growing role in trying to end the conflict and now has some 2,500 soldiers on the ground.