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Mass evacuations begin in Ivory Coast

US, France, others fly out thousands following attacks

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- France, the United States, and other nations launched one of the largest evacuations of Africa's postindependence era yesterday, requisitioning commercial jets to fly out thousands of foreigners following attacks on civilians and peacekeeping troops.

French soldiers in boats plucked some of their trapped citizens from the banks of Abidjan's lagoons.

Long convoys sent out by the US embassy and other nations rounded up foreigners from their homes for evacuation as Ivory Coast's state television alternately appealed for calm and for a mass uprising against the French, the country's former colonial rulers.

By late afternoon, much of Ivory Coast's largest city was quiet, the first break from violence since Saturday.

French President Jacques Chirac demanded that President Laurent Gbagbo rein in thousands of his hard-line supporters, who brought him to power in 2000 and are now leading the anti-French street violence.

Ivory Coast's ''government is pushing to kill white people -- not just the French, all white people," said Marie Noel Mion, rescued in a wooden boat at daybreak, and waiting with hundreds of others at Abidjan's airport, some camped in tents on the floor of the terminal.

''The people here have lost everything -- their houses, their companies, everything," said a Belgian businessman, who was leaving after 23 years and not returning.

The mayhem, checked only intermittently by Gbagbo's government, has been condemned by African leaders and drawn moves toward UN sanctions. It threatens lasting harm to the economy and stability of Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer and once West Africa's most peaceful and prosperous nation.

Violence erupted Saturday when Ivory Coast warplanes killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker in an airstrike on the rebel-held north in three days of government air attacks that violated a more than year-old cease-fire in the country's civil war.

France wiped out the nation's new air force on the tarmac within hours. The retaliation sparked violence by loyalist youths, who took to the streets waving machetes, iron bars, and clubs.

Including the airstrike, the turmoil since Saturday has claimed at least 27 lives and wounded more than 900. Presidential spokesman Alain Toussaint gave a casualty toll only for the loyalists, saying 37 had died.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, who was sent in by the African Union, invited representatives of Ivory Coast's warring sides to peace talks this week.

Ivory Coast has been divided between rebel north and loyalist south since civil war broke out in 2002. France and the United Nations have more than 10,000 peacekeepers in the country.

As the evacuation got underway, France's Cabinet approved a decree requisitioning commercial aircraft to carry out French citizens in what was shaping up as one of the largest evacuations since Africa's 1960s independence era.

France expected to fly out between 4,000 and 8,000 citizens. Evacuees included some UN employees and others among 1,500 expatriates holed up at UN offices around the city. More than 1,600 others -- most of them French, but also citizens of 42 other countries -- had taken refuge in a French military camp.

While hundreds of thousands of African immigrants also are at risk in the anti-foreigner attacks, the governments of Ivory Coast's poor neighbors have no means to mount a similar rescue.

As the first convoys left for Abidjan's French-secured airport, state television broadcast more of what the United Nations has called hate messages. They included images of some of the seven people reported killed in a clash Tuesday at a French evacuation post.

France says the protesters died when demonstrators opened fire on the French, and Ivory Coast security forces returned fire. Demonstrators say French troops opened fire.

''The French are assassinating our children," one man cried on state television. ''Let us all mobilize."

Convoys shuttled foreigners to the airport, at first passing through ''very virulent" crowds of loyalist youths on a route littered with burned vehicles and an abandoned roadblock of burned tires, UN spokesman Philippe Moreux said.

''It's a very hostile crowd," he said. ''They're chanting slogans and insults, things like, 'All the whites out,' 'Everybody catch a white.' "

The US Embassy and others sent escorts into the city, fetching Americans, Canadians, Spaniards, and others.

Only a few hundred Americans remain in Ivory Coast, many of them missionaries and aid workers.

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