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France, UN, Embassies Begin Evacuations From Ivory Coast

The French military, United Nations, and foreign embassies have started evacuating thousands of foreign nationals from divided Ivory Coast, prompting celebrations by supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo. The evacuations follow five days of protests against French interests and mob violence that has gutted the commercial capital, Abidjan.

The first French military flight left around midday for Paris from Abidjan with about 250 people on board, mostly women and children.

It was the first of dozens of evacuation flights expected in the coming days. Thousands of French nationals are signing up to leave voluntarily under French military escort, even though the French government has insisted it is not ordering this evacuation.

The United Nations and foreign embassies have started taking non-essential personnel and citizens to makeshift relief centers in preparation for flights to Ghana.

Gold mining executive Australian Lyndon Hopkins is one of those hoping to get out. "We have been back in the house here for about four or five days now, since things started to get nasty on Friday," he said. "We have taken the decision that things are not necessarily going to improve in the short term and because we are here to work, it is better for us take this opportunity to leave. We will look at the situation in a few weeks time."

But many French nationals who have been living in Ivory Coast for decades said they were leaving for good. The French population which numbered about 40,000 during the 1990s has dwindled to less than 15,000 because of instability in Ivory Coast, the world's leading cocoa producer.

Their departure prompted celebrations outside the headquarters of state television. Some supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo chanted they had been liberated, including Sylvain Kone.

"I am happy that they are leaving our country. I am very happy," he said. "They do not permit us to express our freedom. They take us as their slaves and we are not happy, not happy because we want to be free and they do not want it."

Thousands of supporters of Mr. Gbagbo have formed a human shield around his residency, fearful the international community is pushing for his ouster.

Mob violence started Saturday after French forces destroyed all Ivorian military aircraft. One of these Ivorian planes had bombed a French position in the rebel-held north, killing nine French soldiers.

The Ivorian attack violated a cease-fire, and derailed a U.N. backed peace plan with rebels.

At least 25 people were killed in Abidjan in the ensuing chaos, as French forces led efforts to restore order among angry crowds and armed militias. There was also violence between Ivorians and African foreigners in the central town of Gagnoa, killing at least 12 people.

Rebel leaders in the north say three days of Ivorian raids prior to the Saturday attack on the French base killed 85 people, but this could not be confirmed. Northern areas have also had their water and electricity cut off.

One of the rebel spokesmen, Drissa Ouattara, appealed for international help. "It is depending on the international community," he said. "If they want this problem of Cote d'Ivoire to be solved, it will be solved. Our problems is in their hand."

South African President Thabo Mbeki who was in Abidjan to meet Tuesday with Mr. Gbagbo is convening talks in South Africa later this week between all sides in the conflict. His spokesman has also suggested troops from the African Union could arrive to help more than 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers and French soldiers.