Foreigners flee Côte d'Ivoire mayhem

French and United Nations troops on Wednesday began evacuating from Côte d’Ivoire thousands of terrified expatriates who fled their homes after a frenzy of mob violence by pro-government gangs cost the lives of 27 people.

As state television broadcast fiery calls to mobilise against the French, French troops combed Côte d’Ivoire’s largest city to rescue foreigners, sending boats to pluck some French off the banks of Abidjan’s lagoons.

“The government is pushing to kill white people—not just the French, all white people,” said Marie Noel Mion, rescued by a wooden boat at daybreak on Wednesday and waiting with hundreds of others at Abidjan’s airport for a flight out.

Two Air France jets flew 500 people out of Abidjan on Wednesday, and over the coming days between 4 000 and 8 000 European residents are expected to be airlifted out of Côte d’Ivoire.

On Wednesday night Downing Street confirmed that a company of up to 120 British troops had been placed on standby to rescue several hundred British citizens. “We are making our usual contingency plans in case it deteriorates further ... and we need to evacuate British nationals,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.

The evacuations could be the start of a significant reduction of the country’s prosperous expatriate community, estimated at 14 000 in a total population of 17-million.

Three other countries, Spain, Belgium and Italy, were sending military planes to the region to evacuate their nationals.

“The people here have lost everything—their houses, their companies, everything,” said one man, a Belgian businessman who said he was leaving after 23 years and not coming back.
“After 23 years in Ivory Coast, I have 60kg of luggage and a dog.”

“I see a very dark picture for the future of Ivory Coast,” he told the Associated Press. Violence erupted in the country, the world’s leading cocoa producer, on Saturday after Côte d’Ivoire warplanes killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker in an air strike on the rebel-held north. France retaliated by destroying the nation’s newly built-up air force, sparking an anti-French uprising.

Thousands of French families have huddled in their homes, fearing more attacks by youths loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo.

“They are using public buses to mass in key spots, like the state broadcaster and the presidential palace,” said an expatriate aid worker, speaking on the phone from Abidjan.

Much of the popular rage was directed at the wealthy Cocody suburb of Abidjan and at the upmarket Hotel Ivoire, where hundreds of French had been moved to safety, guarded by French troops. On Tuesday evening, gunfire from the Hotel Ivoire killed at least seven of Gbagbo’s supporters and wounded several others.

Gbagbo on Wednesday night rebuked the French for overreacting in destroying his air force. “The French reaction was too rapid, too disproportionate.”

But the French prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, riposted that “you do not kill French soldiers with impunity”.

The South African president, Thabo Mbeki, is due to meet two key Ivorian opposition leaders, the former prime minister Alassane Ouattara and Guillaume Soro, secretary-general of the New Forces, in Pretoria today.

Both are allied with the rebel forces. But a rebel spokesperson, Sidiki Konate, said his group would only attend the talks on condition that Gbagbo was not there.

“We can’t go and hold discussions with a criminal, with someone who represents nothing any more in the eyes of Ivorians. Any negotiations have to be based on a transition without Gbagbo,” Konate said by phone from Bouake, a rebel stronghold.

Mbeki held talks with President Gbagbo in Abidjan on Tuesday in an effort to help end the two-year conflict. Gbagbo agreed to take new measures to reduce tension between his loyalists and rebels.

But the United Nations signalled on Wednesday night that it was running out of patience, giving the country a month to revive last year’s peace commitments or face an arms embargo and other sanctions. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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