'I was given 3 seconds to go'

2004-11-11 13:07

Abidjan - Airliners were shuttling hundreds of trapped foreigners out of the Ivory Coast on Thursday, as South Africa convened urgent peace talks on a crisis that it said threatened to destabilise West Africa.

France and other nations launched the evacuations on Wednesday. Convoys sent out by the United States Embassy and other nations gathered foreigners from their homes, rounding them up for evacuation as Ivory Coast state TV alternately appealed on Wednesday for calm and for a mass uprising against the French. French soldiers in boats plucked some trapped citizens from the banks of Abidjan's lagoons.

A French official has said between 4 000 to 8 000 of its 14 000 citizens wanted to leave, a number that alone would make it one of the largest evacuations of Africa's post-independence era.

French President Jacques Chirac demanded that Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo's government rein in his thousands of hard-line supporters, who brought Gbagbo to power in 2000 and now are leading the anti-foreigner violence that erupted on Saturday.

60kg of luggage and a dog

Some foreigners fleeing Ivory Coast accused the government of encouraging violence against white people, while others complained they were losing everything they own in the rapid flight.

"After 23 years in Ivory Coast, I have 60kg of luggage and a dog," said a Belgian businessman who said he was leaving the country after 23 years and not coming back.

The mayhem, checked only intermittently by Gbagbo's government, has been unanimously condemned by Gbagbo's fellow African leaders and drawn moves toward United Nations 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.

South African Foreign Affairs spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa said that President Thabo Mbeki would open the talks on Thursday in Pretoria.

South African Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad said Ivorian rebel and opposition leaders, including former prime minister Alassane Outtara, will arrive in Pretoria on Thursday for the talks. Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said a resolution to the crisis was critical.

"A full scale war in Ivory Coast could affect a lot of other countries in the region," she told a parliamentary committee on foreign affairs in Cape Town. "We need to contain it in Ivory Coast and bring it under control, or it could turn into a regional problem."

In Paris, the first several hundred evacuees arrived overnight. Christophe Larrouilh, arriving in France, said he and his wife were forced to make 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.

Evacuees also included some UN employees and others among 1 500 expatriates holed up at UN offices around the city.