YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast – American schoolchildren flew to safety Thursday on the first evacuation plane out of rebellion-torn Ivory Coast, while French troops launched a full-scale evacuation of frightened Westerners from a rebel-held city under threat of imminent government attack.
A U.S. C-130 carried the first 18 evacuees -- students age 8 to 18 from a mission boarding school and staff, 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 American teens and younger children 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 mission boarding school on the edge of the besieged city 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.-allied 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 that has been held by rebels since a failed Sept. 19 coup attempt.
In Washington, the State Department advised Americans on Thursday to leave the rebellion-torn country and authorized the families of American diplomats and those whose jobs are not essential to leave at U.S. government expense.
As the evacuation got under way, Ivory Coast Defense Minister Lida Moise Kouassi took to state TV to declare Bouake and one other rebel-held city "war zones." He said attack was imminent.
"The national forces of Ivory Coast will be called upon to do their duty," Kouassi declared.
Troops from France -- the once-stable nation's 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.
Anxious evacuees lined the roads in cars, rolling out in convoys when the word to move out came.
Thousands of the Bouake's people fled on foot, walking the sides of the roads with bundles of belongings or cooking pots on their heads.
Rebels in camouflage uniforms manned checkpoints in and out the city. Shattered glass and other wreckage by some of the checkpoints testified to recent fighting.
Government troops secured the 40 mile route to a hastily erected reception center at the Ivory Coast capital, Yamoussoukro. French and U.S. forces and diplomats of several European countries and Japan waited there to take in and process their nationals.
Refugees, streaming to the safe haven in cars crammed with suitcases and children, spoke of a week pinned down by gunfire, with water and electricity out and food running short.
"It was the isolation, and thinking every night there could be an attack," Jamal Bittar, a French evacuee of Lebanese descent, among the first convoys of evacuees arriving in cars crammed with suitcases and children.
"It's sad for the locals. They're not going to be able to leave," Bittar said. "We will pray for them."
On the day the firing was worst, Frenchwoman Catherine Martin said, she retreated with her husband to a room with no windows, and brought in mattresses to avoid any flying bullets.
"That was the hardest day," she said.
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 Friday. 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."
In Washington, Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news briefing Thursday that the "vast majority" of about 2,600 Americans in Ivory Coast were safe. Pace said some of those rescued by French troops from the school decided to stay in Ivory Coast.
Another 177 adults and students evacuated from the American mission school on Wednesday left Yamoussoukro on Thursday in a long convoy of cars bound for the commercial capital Abidjan, 155 miles away.
The U.S. Embassy in Ghana said 130 American Peace Corps volunteers were being fetched from remote points across Ivory Coast. The Peace Corps workers were to be escorted by road into Ghana.
The uprising is Ivory Coast's deadliest ever, posing the worst crisis to the government since a 1999 coup shattered stability in what was once West Africa's calmest and most prosperous country. The country remains the world's leading cocoa producer, and the crisis has sent cocoa prices worldwide skyrocketing.
At least 270 people died in the first days after the new coup attempt, which involved a core group of as many as 800 soldiers angry over dismissal from the army for suspected disloyalty.
Insurgents have found some support in Ivory Coast's north, which is predominantly Muslim, and from different ethnic groups than the largely Christian population in the south, where the government is based.
The uprising has unleashed political, regional, ethnic and religious hostilities, fueling tensions and leading to fears of a wider conflict.
On Thursday, regional military power Nigeria confirmed it had sent three fighters jets to support Ivory Coast's embattled government.