YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast — American schoolchildren flew to safety Thursday on the first evacuation plane from rebellion-torn Ivory Coast, while French troops launched a full-scale evacuation of frightened Westerners from the rebel-held city of Bouake, which was under threat of government attack.
A U.S. C-130 carried the first 18 evacuees--students ages 8 to 18 from a mission boarding school and staff members, most of them American--to an airport in neighboring Ghana, where U.S. Embassy workers whisked them away to rest and start arranging reunions with families.
Smiling broadly, the rescued Americans clutched water bottles as they crossed the tarmac toting bags of their belongings.
U.S. forces armed with assault rifles had flanked the children's military cargo plane when it left Ivory Coast--ending a week that saw teachers and children pinned down by rebel fire that at times came over the walls of their whitewashed school on the edge of Bouake.
"We were hunkered down for seven days waiting for help--then the French came," said Mike Coustineau, security chief for the U.S.-affiliated International Christian Academy. "We were very delighted to see them."
The first flight out came as U.S., French and British forces scrambled to bring all their nationals out of Bouake, a central city of 500,000 people. In Washington, the State Department advised Americans to leave the rebellion-torn country and authorized the families of American diplomats and those foreign service workers whose jobs are nonessential to depart.
As the evacuation got underway, Ivory Coast Defense Minister Moise Lida Kouassi took to state TV to declare Bouake and one other rebel-held city "war zones." He said attack was imminent.
Troops from France, the nation's former colonial ruler, hammered out a cease-fire with rebels for the evacuation and rushed to clear the city of all who wished to go.
Hundreds of armed French troops in jeeps and at least one light tank secured the main roads out of Bouake.
Government troops secured the 40-mile route to a hastily erected reception center in Yamoussoukro, the capital.
French and U.S. forces and diplomats of several European countries and Japan waited there to receive their nationals.
Ivorians and Africans from other nations also joined the convoy.
French forces said they expected Bouake to be emptied of all foreigners who wanted to leave by today. The city is home to 650 French, an unknown number of other Europeans, and at least 150 Americans.
Unable or unwilling to flee, many of Bouake's Ivory Coast citizens huddled in their homes.
"Everyone is afraid," said one frightened Ivorian woman, reached by telephone Thursday. "We'd like to be helped too."