ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) – Staring with tears in their eyes, Ivory Coast’s people emerged from their homes Thursday to survey the wreckage of five days of violent upheaval and stock up on food.

France and other Western nations flew out hundreds of their nationals in a second round of evacuations, while South Africa convened urgent talks, warning the crisis could destabilize West Africa.

The commercial capital, Abidjan, experienced the first day of calm since anti-foreigner mobs took to the streets Saturday after a sudden, deadly clash between the forces of Ivory Coast and its former colonial ruler, France.

Some shops reopened and traffic returned to streets strewn with charred vehicles and the remnants of roadblocks. Residents crowded supermarkets and waited in long lines to withdraw cash from ATMs.

A woman stood horrified amid the burned-out wreckage of a French bookstore. Employees at an Ivorian frozen-foods company found the doors kicked in and the freezers empty.

“They took everything, even the carpet,” a delivery man said, too afraid to give his name. “Our entire future is in question. A boss can’t pay people who can’t work any more.”

Once one of West Africa’s most prosperous and stable countries, Ivory Coast has been riven by instability since a 1999 military coup ignited ethnic and regional tensions between the predominantly Muslim north and mostly Christian and animist south.

France, with some 14,000 citizens in the nation, sent helicopters Wednesday to pluck trapped foreigners from villages and bring them to Abidjan’s international airport, crowded with frightened families waiting for flights out.

A woman cradling her baby in the departure hall said she had just minutes to decide whether to stay where she has lived for 15 years or go when French soldiers swooped into Jacqueville, about 25 miles west of Abidjan.

“I grabbed my baby and I grabbed my photo album and I jumped in the helicopter,” said the French woman, who gave her name only as Caroline.

The violence began when Ivory Coast warplanes killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker in a Saturday airstrike on the north during three days of government bombardments that violated a 2003 cease-fire in a now 2-year-old civil war.

Within hours, France had wiped out the nation’s newly built-up air force, sparking an uprising by loyalist youths, who took to the streets with machetes, iron bars and clubs.

Amid the chaos, more than 4,000 inmates of Ivory Coast’s largest penitentiary escaped through sewers over the weekend after military police guarding the prison were diverted to deal with the street violence, the Justice Ministry said. Officials said initially about 2,000 had escaped but increased that figure Thursday.

Many of the prisoners including murderers, robbers and other hard-core offenders are believed to have made their way into the center of Abidjan, the official said.

The mayhem, driven by President Laurent Gbagbo’s fiercely patriotic supporters and checked only intermittently by his government, has been condemned by fellow African leaders and generated moves toward U.N. sanctions.

South African President Thabo Mbeki opened talks Thursday in Pretoria with the country’s political representatives, including opposition leader and former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara. A spokesman for Ivory Coast’s main insurgency said they would not participate.

“We are counting our dead and defending our frontiers,” Sidiki Konate said from the rebel-held city of Bouake. “If we were to go to South Africa, it would be to discuss a future in Ivory Coast without Mr. Gbagbo.”

Nigeria – which currently chairs the African Union – said it had invited Gbagbo to a summit of African leaders to discuss the crisis in Ivory Coast in its capital Abuja on Sunday, along with Mbeki and the presidents of Ghana, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Gabon.

The north 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. The U.N. Children’s Fund warned Thursday that lack of safe drinking water could spark epidemics.

Konate claimed 50 patients at four hospitals died because of a lack of electricity.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan reiterated his call to all parties to end the violence.

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said in New York that U.N. peacekeepers reported that government troops have withdrawn beyond the zone separating the government-held south from the rebel-controlled north.

In Abidjan, youth leader Ble Goude told his followers to stop attacking French nationals in their homes. But he urged them to maintain a presence outside Gbagbo’s residence and the national broadcast station to protect them from attack.

The turmoil since Saturday has claimed at least 27 lives – a partial list including the 10 people killed in the airstrike – and wounded more than 1,000. Ivory Coast presidential spokesman Alain Toussaint said 37 loyalists had died.

France’s first 900 evacuees arrived in Paris late Wednesday, with more flights leaving Thursday. Belgium, Canada, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and the United Nations also organized planes.

Britain sent a Royal British Gurkha Rifles company to neighboring Ghana to support evacuations of Britons and redirected the HMS Albion assault ship to Ivory Coast.

AP-ES-11-11-04 1908EST



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