Foreigners crowd airport for flights out of Ivory Coast
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Frightened Westerners – many of them longtime residents of this former African economic success story – piled into buses, boats and planes Saturday as a French-run evacuation built, despite government promises to protect the expatriates from a surge of anti-foreigner violence.
As calm returned to the war-divided country, African leaders redoubled efforts to resolve a crisis they say threatens regional stability.
But in a potentially ominous sign, President Laurent Gbagbo on Saturday appointed a hard-liner as new army chief of staff, replacing a popular, moderate general.
The new chief of staff, Col. Maj. Phillipe Mangou, was the field commander responsible for last week’s air campaign in which Ivory Coast warplanes bombed a French military post, killing nine French peacekeepers and an American civilian, and plunging the West African nation into its current crisis.
France, Ivory Coast’s former colonial ruler, and other countries have flown out nearly 4,000 foreigners since Wednesday, embassy officials said, in what they expect will be one of the largest evacuations from Africa in post-independence times.
Most of those leaving are French, but they also include hundreds of Americans, Britons, Dutch, Spaniards and Lebanese. Private companies have evacuated another 470 of their employees.
Gbagbo’s office issued a statement late Friday urging foreigners to stay, saying it was taking steps to assure their safety. But after more than two years of intermittent civil war, many Westerners were skeptical of Gbagbo’s assurances.
“I can still hear the crowd screaming,” said Monique Philippe, who moved here 40 years ago with her Ivorian husband and has two Ivorian children. “Many houses were looted and burned.”
She was sheltering with scores of others at the luxury Golf Hotel, where French forces are gathering Westerners before transferring them in barges to a military base and flying them out of the country. Every day, she watches more friends leave, unsure whether to join them.
“It may be calmer now, but it is not over,” Philippe said.
Busloads of Westerners continued to pull up at Abidjan’s airport, under heavy French guard, to catch evacuation flights Saturday. But French military officials said about 200 others under their protection had decided to stay.
“If it wasn’t for my son, I wouldn’t leave,” said a lifelong resident identifying herself as Esther and waiting with her mother and 16-year-old son to board a French military barge. “The schools have been burned. I have to put him in school in France.”
Those opting to remain kept a low profile. Despite a semblance of normality in the largest city, Abidjan, few whites ventured from their homes.
In Paris, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said Saturday that France had proof some of its citizens were raped during five days of rioting in Abidjan and other cities.
Hospital officials and The Associated Press have confirmed 27 deaths – including nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker killed in the government airstrike that unleashed the chaos Nov. 6 – and more than 1,000 wounded. No Westerners have been reported killed in the rioting, with the vast majority of casualties Ivorian.
Ivory Coast’s government claims 62 of its supporters were killed, many of them when French forces opened fire on anti-French demonstrations in Abidjan. France maintains its forces fired only in self-defense and many of the casualties were caused by gunmen within the crowds.
The Nov. 6 airstrike by Ivorian warplanes came amid three days of government bombardments on the rebel-held north that violated a cease-fire that was more than a year old.
France retaliated by wiping out the country’s tiny air force, sparking an uprising by loyalist youths in the south who took to the streets armed with machetes, iron bars and clubs.
Last week, the U.N. Security Council gave wide support to a resolution that would impose sanctions on Ivory Coast if the country’s government and rebels do not return to a peace process by the beginning of December.
South Africa, which is mediating the crisis at the request of the African Union, hosted a third day of talks Saturday in Pretoria with leaders of Ivory Coast’s political opposition, including former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara.
Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore also flew in for talks with South African counterpart Thabo Mbeki ahead of a summit of African leaders in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
Ivory Coast has accused Compaore of supporting the insurgents. Burkina Faso in turn accuses Ivory Coast of fomenting an attempted coup against Compaore earlier this year.
Gbagbo and Compaore were invited to a Sunday summit hosted by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the current AU chairman. But Ivory Coast’s main rebel movement refuses to participate in peace talks as long as Gbagbo remains in power.