ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (CP) - France and the United Nations began evacuating thousands of French and other expatriates Wednesday trapped at UN offices and a French military base amid days of anti-foreigner rampages in Ivory Coast's largest city, French and UN officials said.
Evacuations started Wednesday morning with a convoy of 40 UN personnel, UN spokesman Philippe Mathieu said. The 40 were among more than 1,000 expatriates who have been holed up in UN headquarters amid four days of looting and attacks, Mathieu said.
Heavily armed French forces manned a roadblock on the way to Ivory Coast's international airport, now controlled by the French military and reopening Wednesday for what were expected to be days of flights out.
The flights would also evacuate more than 1,600 expatriates who have taken refuge at a French military base in Abidjan, French officials said.
Canada said Tuesday night it was also preparing to airlift its citizens out of the country.
"The government of Canada has decided to charter a plane to evacuate Canadians who would want to leave Ivory Coast," Foreign Affairs Canada said in a statement.
"They will be evacuated from Abidjan to Accra, Ghana over the next few days."
There are about 700 Canadians registered in Ivory Coast, the department said.
At least two other countries, Spain and Belgium, sent military planes that were on standby in the region Wednesday if needed to evacuate their nationals.
As the evacuations began, South African President Thabo Mbeki invited representatives of Ivory Coast's warring sides to peace talks to end the violence.
No date has been set but the meeting is expected "soon," spokesman Bheki Khumalo said.
Mbeki was sent to Ivory Coast on Tuesday by the 54-country African Union. Ivory Coast has been divided between rebel north and loyalist south since civil war broke out in September 2002.
France and the United Nations have more than 10,000 peacekeepers in the country, trying to maintain a 2003 ceasefire broken Thursday by the government air strikes on rebel territory.