ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Airliners shuttled hundreds of foreigners out of the Ivory Coast (search) on Thursday after a surge in violence and South Africa convened urgent peace talks on a crisis that it said threatened to destabilize West Africa.
Residents in the commercial capital, meanwhile, stared hopelessly at the burned-out wreckage of their shops and offices as a measure of calm returned to Abidjan after five days of anti-foreigner mob violence.
France and other nations launched the evacuations Wednesday. Convoys sent out by the U.S. Embassy and other nations gathered foreigners from their homes and 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 in the country wanted to leave, a number that alone would make it one of the largest evacuations of Africa's post-independence era.
About 20 Americans arrived Wednesday night in Accra, capital of neighboring Ghana, on a Canadian-organized flight, and Spain said it would evacuate about 90 more at the request of the United States.
The mayhem, checked only intermittently by President Laurent Gbagbo's (search) government, has been unanimously condemned by fellow African leaders and drawn moves toward U.N. sanctions. It threatens lasting harm to the economy and the stability of Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer and once West Africa's most peaceful and prosperous nation.
The violence began Saturday when Ivory Coast warplanes killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker in an airstrike on the rebel-held north in three days of government air attacks that violated a cease-fire in the country's civil war.
France wiped out the nation's newly built-up air force on the tarmac within hours. The retaliation sparked a violent uprising by loyalist youths who took to the streets waving machetes, iron bars and clubs.
The turmoil has killed at least 27 people and wounded more than 1,000.
South African President Thabo Mbeki (search) planned to open talks between Ivorian opposition and rebel leaders Thursday in the capital, Pretoria, officials said.
"A full scale war in Ivory Coast could affect a lot of other countries in the region," South African Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said. "We need to contain it in Ivory Coast and bring it under control, or it could turn into a regional problem."
The northern half of the former French colony has been without electricity and running water since last week, when authorities in the south are believed to have cut power in rebel-held areas. Aid workers feared disease outbreaks if clean water supplies aren't restored.
Some shops were open in Abidjan and traffic returned to streets being cleared of destroyed vehicles and roadblocks of tires in the first calm day in nearly a week. Residents crowded supermarkets and waited in long lines to withdraw cash from ATMs.
A woman stood with tears in her eyes amid the charred wreckage of a French book store. Employees at an Ivorian frozen-foods company found the doors kicked in and the freezers gone with all their contents.
"They took everything, even the carpet," a delivery man said in dismay, too afraid to give his name. "Our entire future is in question. A boss can't pay people who can't work any more."
The first of several hundred evacuees arrived in France Wednesday night. Christophe Larrouilh, arriving in Paris, 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.
France, Spain and the Netherlands sent planes to pick up frightened foreigners and Britain said it would send troops from Ghana for a possible rescue operation.
U.N. employees and others were among 1,500 expatriates holed up at U.N. offices around Abidjan. More than 1,600 others — most of them French, but also citizens of 42 other countries — had taken refuge inside a French military camp.
Separately, a justice ministry official said more than 4,000 inmates of Ivory Coast's largest penitentiary escaped through sewers over the weekend after military police guarding outside the prison were diverted to deal with the street violence. The prisoners were believed to be hiding out in a forest in the center of Abidjan.