YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast -- American schoolchildren flew to safety Thursday on the first evacuation plane out of the 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.
As the evacuation got underway, 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.
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.
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," said Jamal Bittar, a French evacuee of Lebanese descent, among the first convoys of evacuees.
"It's sad for the locals. They're not going to be able to leave," Bittar said. "We will pray for them."
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.