MONROVIA, Liberia – French military helicopters evacuated Americans and other foreigners from the besieged capital of Liberia at dawn Monday, ferrying them out of embassy compounds to a ship in the Atlantic.
The evacuations to the French navy ship came as Liberian soldiers reported more fighting on the western edge of the city, and explosions sounded in the distance.
Helicopters left first from the white-walled, barbed-wire-topped compound of the European Union, on a hillside overlooking the ocean, which houses European diplomatic staff in Liberia (search). The aircraft then touched down at the neighboring U.S. Embassy compound, collecting about 100 Americans who had gathered overnight.
EU forces stood guard with heavy weapons as aid workers, ducking against debris from the twirling blades, ran down a rocky hillside and climbed into the aircraft.
"We can't work, and we had to leave," said Isabelle de Bourning, of French aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (search), or Doctors Without Borders, running for the helicopter. "I hope it will be quick."
A total of 91 foreign residents were evacuated from the compound, said David Parker, acting head of the EU mission in Liberia. They included foreign staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross and U.N. agencies.
Lebanese families, who make up much of the merchant class of West Africa, also were flown out from the European compound en route to the French ship Orage, which planned to sail to neighboring Ivory Coast.
U.S. Ambassador John Blaney and a coterie of Marine guards, U.S. special forces and security contractors planned to remain behind at the American embassy, U.S. authorities said.
The European Union, which operates the water plants for this war-ravaged city of 1 million, now crowded with refugees, also planned to keep a core staff here as long as possible, Parker said.
Liberians, residents of a nation founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century, came out of their shacks and watched silently as the helicopters flew back and forth across the seascape.
The French-led evacuation was being coordinated by E.U. and U.S. Embassy officials because most countries only have honorary consuls in Liberia. Many embassies closed at the start of Liberia's bloody 1989-96 civil war and never reopened.
The evacuation had been planned at least since the weekend, when rebels fighting to oust Liberian President Charles Taylor made two pushes into the city outskirts.
Liberian forces and local radio reported more fighting on the west side at dawn, as the evacuations began. Explosions sounded occasionally from that direction.
Pro-Taylor militia fighters raced through the city in jeeps with mounted cannons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Stores were shuttered and most gas stations closed.
Thousands of terrified civilians were on the move, heading for the city's eastern suburbs. Others bundled mattresses on their heads and rushed back to the U.S. Embassy complex, where Americans refused them entry during weekend fighting.
"God will help us," a heavyset Liberian woman said, heading up hill toward the U.S. complex with a cloth bundle on her head.
Late Sunday, Liberian government soldiers claimed to have beaten back the latest rebel advance into the capital, driving insurgents deeper into the swamps behind the St. Paul's river bridge marking the city's western entrance.
The rebels' drive against Taylor gained momentum Wednesday, when a joint U.N-Sierra Leone court charged him with war crimes for allegedly aiding Sierra Leone (search) 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," the chairman of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (search), Sehon Damate Conneh Jr., said in Rome, where he met 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 AP 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.