Massive evacuations underway

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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) – France, the United States and other nations launched one of the largest evacuations of Africa’s post-independence era Wednesday, 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 U.S. Embassy and other nations rounded up foreigners from their homes for evacuation as Ivory Coast’s state TV 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 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.

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 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.

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 only gave a casualty toll 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.