YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast – U.S. and French troops swooped in before dawn Sunday to evacuate Americans and other foreigners from an Ivory Coast city, landing helicopters in rebel territory to pluck out nuns, Peace Corps workers and orphans clutching stuffed rabbits.
West African leaders promised to try to persuade rebels to lay down their arms, but in the meantime said they would put West African forces on standby.
"A threat to Ivory Coast is a threat to all of us," said President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, which has scrambled fighter jets to Ivory Coast for a looming showdown.
In Korhogo, a northern city held by rebels since a bloody Sept. 19 coup attempt, the sound of helicopters breaking through the night early Sunday signaled rescue for hundreds of Americans and other foreigners pinned down by gunfire for 10 days and nights.
"Lots of gunshots -- that was the scary part," said Charley Campbell, a Colorado Springs, Colo., missionary evacuated with his wife and 5-year-old son. "We could smell the gun smoke."
The 5-year-old enjoyed the helicopter ride for the most part, but was still worried, Campbell said. "He didn't want the helicopter to get shot down."
Helicopters brought the Westerners to a secured airport 10 miles outside Korhogo where they were put on French and U.S. C-130 military cargo planes and ferried to an airfield in Yamoussoukro, which is now used by Western forces as a staging point for rescue missions in the once-stable country. U.S. special forces have set up a base at a church compound there.
U.S. soldiers lifted children through the side doors of the cargo planes while their colleagues stood watch with assault rifles.
Children clutching furry stuffed rabbits, nuns wearing white habits and white shoes, and Peace Corps workers in T-shirts milled about, struggling to get their bearings.
"There was firing, firing all the time," said Cecile, an Ivory Coast worker at a Spanish Catholic orphanage evacuated from Korhogo with 14 children, most of them babies and toddlers. She refused to give her last name.
"At night, we couldn't sleep because of the shooting," she said, comforting fretful orphans hanging on her and grabbing at her clothing. "And the children are afraid."
The evacuation of Korhogo, the northern opposition stronghold, comes as Ivory Coast's government repeatedly threatens an all-out attack to retake it and the larger, central city of Bouake.
"It's really hard to leave," said Carrie Brunger of Knoxville, Tenn., who holed up with other Peace Corps volunteers in a Baptist mission after heavy firing around the village north of Korhogo where she was working. "I didn't get to say goodbye. I really don't want to leave it like that."
Both cities have been in rebel hands since the bloody failed coup attempt Sept. 19 in which about 270 people were killed. The uprising was launched in Abidjan by disgruntled soldiers purged from the army on suspicion of disloyalty.
French troops led an evacuation of more than 2,000 Westerners from Bouake on Thursday and Friday.
Sunday's daylong evacuation brought some 400 people -- including 55 Americans -- out of Korhogo, nearby Ferkessedougou and others areas.
For the 2,000 Americans based in Ivory Coast, for now "this is the last major evacuation," said Richard Buangan, a Paris-based U.S. diplomat helping coordinate the rescues. U.S. and French forces were now working on the evacuation of small pockets of Americans and other foreign nationals scattered across northern Ivory Coast, he said.
Ivory Coast armed forces spokesman Jules Yao Yao said on state television that loyalist forces fired heavily on rebel lines north of Yamoussoukro -- the closest clash to the capital yet.
The military spokesman defended Ivory Coast's failure to carry out repeated threats of an imminent offensive to retake all of Ivory Coast's north.
"The operation's slow progress, which some have reproached us for, is caused by the desire of our forces to limit to the minimum all collateral effects," such as civilian casualties, he said.
Underscoring the gravity with which the continent's leaders regard the crisis in one of West Africa's economic powerhouses, presidents of nine West African nations and foreign ministers of two others met to weigh military action or mediation on behalf of the Ivory Coast government.
They assigned six presidents among them -- from Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Togo -- to open talks with rebels for an immediate cease-fire and negotiations.
South African President Thabo Mbeki also attended, calling it a show of solidarity.
At the same time, they ordered their regional bloc's defense commission to start work putting a joint West African military force on stand-by.
"We must send a clear message ... that those days of illegitimate governments are gone. There must be zero tolerance for coups in West Africa," said Mohamed ibn Chambas, the secretary-general of the West African leaders' bloc.
Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade, chairman of the bloc, urged the deployment of a regional "peace contingent." The failure Sunday to come up with an immediate deployment indicated that not all leaders were ready to intervene.