It was expected up to three hundred foreigners — including Americans — will be evacuated from Liberia over the next 48 hours, reports CBS News Correspondent Elaine Cobbe in Paris. After that, says a French military spokesman, no more airlifts can be risked.
The first groups were taken by helicopter to a French warship waiting offshore. The ship is based there permanently.
The evacuations came as Liberian soldiers reported more fighting on the western edge of the city, where rebels were trying to push into the capital to oust President Charles Taylor. Explosions sounded in the distance.
The first helicopters took off from the white-walled, barbed-wire topped compound of the European Union.
Aid agency workers, ducking against debris sent flying from the twirling blades, ran down a rocky hillside and climbed into French military Cougar helicopters.
European Union forces stood guard with heavy weapons on the fern- and palm-overgrown hillside above the Atlantic Ocean, as helicopters spun off over the steel-gray Atlantic.
"We can't work, and we had to leave," said Isabelle deBourning, of Medecins sans Frontieres, running for the helicopter. "I hope it will be quick."
A total of 91 international residents of Liberia were to be evacuated from just the EU compound, said David Parker, acting head of the EU mission in Liberia.
They included foreign staff of the International Red Cross Committee and U.N. agencies, Parker said.
The European Union operates the water plants for this war-ravaged city of 1 million, now crowded with refugees, and would try to keep a core staff here as long as possible, Parker said.
Lebanese families, who make up much of the merchant class of west Africa, also were expected to fly out from the European compound.
Next door at the U.S. Embassy, about 100 Americans were awaiting evacuation, after gathering overnight.
When most Americans left, Ambassador John Blaney and a coterie of Marine guards were to remain behind at the embassy, U.S. authorities said.
At the European Union, European troop reinforcements piled out of each helicopter that landed to fly out the foreign civilians. Troops in green camouflage jumped out with bazookas and heavy machine guns, in pieces for assembly.
Evacuation had been planned at least since the weekend, when rebels fighting to oust Liberian Charles Taylor made at least two pushes into the city.
Liberian forces and local radio reported more fighting on the west side at dawn, as the evacuations began. Explosions sounded occasionally from that direction.
Liberians, residents of a nation founded by freed American slaves, came out of their shacks and watched silently as the helicopters flew back and forth across the seascape in front of them.
As fighting reportedly renewed, families bundled mattresses on their heads and rushed back to the U.S. Embassy complex, where Americans already had refused them entrance during weekend fighting.
"God will help us," a heavy-set Liberian woman said, heading up hill toward the U.S. complex with cloth bundle on her head.
Late Sunday, soldiers claimed to have beaten back the latest rebel advance into the capital, driving insurgents deeper back into the swamps lying behind the St. Paul's river bridge marking the city's western entrance.
The rebels' drive against Taylor gained momentum Wednesday, when a U.N-Sierra Leone court charged him with war crimes for allegedly aiding Sierra Leone rebels in their vicious 10-year terror campaign.
By Sunday, Taylor controlled little of the country outside of the capital.
The rebels' leader told The Associated Press on Sunday that insurgents will fight their way into the capital unless Taylor yields.
"We want the international community to ask him to step down so as to avoid bloodshed," LURD chairman Sehon Damate Conneh Jr. said in Rome, where he was meeting with the Catholic Sant'Egidio Community, which mediates world conflicts.
"If Taylor doesn't step down, we would go in."
Taylor vowed in an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday to keep the city. He directed Sunday's fighting from a white-walled compound in the city's main port on the Atlantic Ocean.
The port is on the city's west side, and apparently is the rebels' immediate objective.
Government defense officials said Sunday that rebels made their latest raid across the St. Paul's River in dugout canoes, bypassing the bridge.
Before the drive on Monrovia, Liberia's civil war already had uprooted 1 million people within the country and sent 300,000 fleeing to neighboring countries.