France and U.S. evacuate trapped foreigners in Ivory
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Western nations launched one of the largest evacuations of Africa’s post-independence era Wednesday as angry crowds chanted “all the whites out.” French soldiers in boats plucked trapped countrymen from the banks of lagoons.
France commandeered commercial airliners and other nations scrambled military jets to fly out thousands of foreigners after attacks on civilians and peacekeepers. Violence erupted after government forces renewed attacks on rebels, ending a more than one-year cease-fire in the country’s civil war.
Nine French peacekeepers and an American civilian died in a government air attack late last week, prompting the French to destroy Ivory Coast’s tiny air force.
The retaliation sparked violence by loyalist youths, who took to the streets waving machetes, iron bars and clubs and attacking white expatriates.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy and others sent escorts into the city, rescuing Americans, Canadians, Spaniards and others. Spain, Belgium and Italy sent military cargo planes to aid in the evacuations. French officials said three jets with space for about 250 people each would run shuttles to Paris and to Dakar, Senegal, likely for days.
As the convoys rounded up foreigners from their homes for evacuation, Ivory Coast’s state TV alternately appealed for calm and for a mass uprising against the French, the country’s former colonial rulers. French citizens darted out to the banks of lagoons, which surround the capital, were plucked to safety by French soldiers in boats.
Roscoa Howard and about 20 other Americans arrived in Accra, capital of neighboring Ghana, on a Canada-organized evacuation flight Wednesday night. Howard, a Washington D.C. resident, had come to Abidjan on a church trip.
When gunfire erupted Saturday, “we had to fly out of hotel room. …At that point our lives were in danger,” he said. “It was traumatizing, and I’ll continue to pray for that country.”
More Americans are expected in Ghana on Thursday. Only a few hundred Americans remain in Ivory Coast, many of them missionaries and aid workers.
By late afternoon, much of Ivory Coast’s largest city was quiet – the first break from violence since Saturday.
French President Jacques Chirac sternly 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 coming back. “I see a very dark picture for the future of Ivory Coast.”
The mayhem, checked only intermittently by Gbagbo’s government, has been condemned by 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.
Including the airstrike, the turmoil since Saturday has claimed at least 27 lives and wounded more than 900. Presidential spokesman Alain Toussaint only gave a casualty toll for the loyalists, saying 37 had died.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, 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.
At the United Nations, France revised a U.N. Security Council resolution Wednesday to give Ivory Coast more time to resurrect a peace process with northern rebels or face an arms embargo and other sanctions, diplomats said. The decision to push back the deadline from Dec. 1 to Dec. 10 was made at the request of the United States.
The U.S. State Department said it supports Mbeki’s initiative and called on parties to the conflict in the Ivory Coast “to seize this opportunity to restart dialogue and negotiations” to end the strife in the country.
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 to 8,000 citizens – potentially evacuating most of the 14,000 French still left in Ivory Coast since 1999, when the a coup ended four decades of stability.
Evacuees included some U.N. employees and others among 1,500 expatriates holed up at U.N. 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.
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 – one with a head blown off – in a clash Tuesday at a French evacuation post.
Convoys shuttled foreigners to the airport passing through “very virulent” crowds of loyalist youths on a route littered with burned vehicles and an abandoned roadblocks of smoldering tires, U.N. 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.”‘
On state TV, Ivory Coast military spokesman Lt. Col. Jules Yao Yao angrily denounced France as a “force of occupation.” Even for those Ivorians who have condemned the airstrike, the forceful French response has raised uncomfortable memories of the colonial era.
A plane carrying several hundred French fleeing turmoil in Ivory Coast arrived in Paris on Wednesday hours after Chirac conferred posthumous honors on nine French peacekeepers killed in what he called a “cowardly” air attack.
Those fleeing left possessions behind, carrying only light baggage.
Christophe Larrouilh said he and his wife were forced into a quick decision to stay or leave.
On Sunday night, “there was a knock on my door. A (French) soldier said ‘You have three seconds to go.’ It was like in a movie. I left,” Larrouilh said.