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Foreigners Flee Ivory Coast

France and the United Nations launched evacuations Wednesday of thousands of French and other expatriates trapped in homes, U.N. offices and a French military base during days of rampages targeting French citizens and troops in the West African nation.

As state television aired fiery calls to mobilize against the French, French troops combed Ivory Coast's largest city to rescue foreigners for evacuation, 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 French troops in a wooden boat at daybreak Wednesday, and waiting with hundreds of others at Abidjan's airport for the first flight out.

France alone expected to fly out between 4,000 to 8,000 of its citizens from across Ivory Coast, a French official said — potentially the majority of the 14,000 French still in the former French colony.

"It is on a voluntary basis. We are not going to evacuate all our French citizens because they are too many," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We are evaluating the number of those wanting to leave and we have between 4,000 to 8,000 French who have expressed a wish to leave, whether temporarily or for good," the official said.

Spain also has chartered a flight to transport its roughly 300 nationals out of Ivory Coast.

Violence erupted in Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer and West Africa's economic powerhouse, on Saturday after Ivory Coast warplanes killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker in an airstrike on the rebel-held north.

France wiped out the nation's newly built-up air force on the tarmac in retaliation, sparking a violent anti-French uprising of looting, burning and attacks by loyalist youths. The turmoil has claimed at least 27 lives and wounded more than 900.

President Laurent Gbagbo's government, blamed by the French for the airstrike, has failed to rein in the thousands-strong crowds of loyalists.

Evacuations began Wednesday with state television airing what the United Nations has described as hate messages.

State media showed the bodies, one with its head blown off, of some of seven people reported killed in a clash at a French evacuation center on Tuesday.

France says the seven were killed when demonstrators opened fire on the French and Ivory Coast security forces returned fire; demonstrators claim it was French troops who opened fire.

"The French are assassinating our children," one man cried Wednesday on state TV. "Let us all mobilize."

"All those who saw the pictures of our compatriots killed yesterday ... please go back and continue the resistance," another urged.

Aid workers, businesspeople and longtime residents of the former French colony huddled at U.N. agencies on Wednesday, many of them rescued from their homes by French troops amid looting and burning.

"The people here have lost everything, their houses, the companies, everything," one of them, a Belgian businessman, told the AP.

"I see a very dark picture for the future of Ivory Coast," said the man, who said he had been in the country for 23 years.

Exports of the main cash crop cocoa have been suspended since Monday and the main processing factory was shut down Sunday.

"Cocoa production cannot move because the roads are blocked by militants or the French army, which is effectively shutting down the entire country," a trader told the French news agency AFP in London.

On Wednesday, hundreds of expatriates were camped at Abidjan's airport, some in tents set up in the floor of the terminal.

U.N. convoys shuttled foreigners to the airports, passing through "very virulent" crowds of loyalist youths and passing burned vehicles and roadblocks of burned tires, U.N. spokesman Philippe Moreux said.

"It's a very hostile crowd," Moreux said. "They're chanting slogans and insults, things like, 'All the whites out,' 'Everybody get his white.'"

Evacuees included some U.N. employees and others among 1,000 expatriates holed up at U.N. headquarters.

More than 1,600 other foreigners who have taken refuge in a French military base in Abidjan are to be flown out. They included 985 French and citizens of 42 other countries, the French said.

Heavily armed French forces with three armored vehicles manned a roadblock on the way to Ivory Coast's international airport, taken by the French military on Saturday.

The airport was reopening on Wednesday for what were expected to be days of evcuation flights.

Three Boeings with space for 250 people each would run what shuttles to Paris and to Dakar, Senegal, French officials said.

In Paris, French officials stressed the evacuations were voluntary.

"There's no evacuation order," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Cecile Pozzo di Borgo said, saying France was acting "to help our compatriots, those who don't have the means and who are in danger, to leave the country."

At least three other countries, Spain, Belgium and Italy, were sending military planes to be on standby in the region if needed to evacuate their nationals.

As the evacuations began, South African President Thabo Mbeki invited representatives of Ivory Coast's warring sides to peace talks there meant to end the violence.

No date has been set, but the meeting is expected "soon," spokesman Bheki Khumalo said.

Mbeki was sent to Ivory Coast on Tuesday by the 54-nation African Union. Ivory Coast has been divided between rebel north and loyalist south since civil war broke out in September 2002. France and the United Nations have more than 10,000 peacekeepers in the country, trying to maintain a 2003 cease-fire broken Thursday by the government airstrikes on rebel territory.

The rebel-held north has been without power, water and telephone service since Thursday, reports the French news agency AFP.

"If water is not restored soon, the humanitarian consequences could be catastrophic," said Antoine Foucher, Ivory Coast director for Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), who expects an outbreak of cholera soon.