Thursday, November 11, 2004

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — France, the United States and other nations began one of the largest evacuations of Africa’s post-independence era yesterday, requisitioning commercial jets to fly out thousands of foreigners after 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 U.S. 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 in violence since Saturday.

French President Jacques Chirac sternly demanded that President Laurent Gbagbo rein in thousands of hard-line supporters, whose looting and arson attacks often have failed to discriminate among foreigners.

Mr. Gbagbo insisted that he did not order the bombing of a French military base, which sparked unrest in the main city of Abidjan and sent thousands of expatriates and nationals running for their lives.

“Ivory Coast is not at war with France and gave no order to kill these French troops,” the Ivorian president said yesterday, as he made the rounds of French news outlets with interviews on television and with the French daily France-Soir, assuring the public that calm would be restored within 48 hours.

Ivory Coast’s “government is pushing to kill white people — not just the French, all white people,” said Marie Noel Mion, who was 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 planning to return.

The mayhem has been condemned by other African leaders and drawn moves toward U.N. 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.

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

France alone expected to fly out 4,000 to 8,000 citizens, a French official said. About 14,000 French citizens have remained in Ivory Coast since the 1999 coup.

A few hundred Americans are left in the country, many of them missionaries and aid workers. The first plane with Americans left in late afternoon, bound for Accra, capital of neighboring Ghana.

Violence erupted Saturday when Ivory Coast warplanes killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker in a raid on the rebel-held north during three days of government air attacks.

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 air strike, the turmoil since Saturday has taken at least 27 lives and wounded more than 900.

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