For the second time in less than six weeks Tuesday, the U.S. military was called in to help frightened foreigners escape a strife-torn African country as Marines began an evacuation airlift from the increasingly chaotic Central African Republic.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said 13 Americans, accompanied by other escaping foreigners, were on the first helicopter flight out. He said the U.S. government intends to evacuate all of the 252 Americans known to be in the country who want to leave.
The U.S. operation in the Central African Republic, where mutinous soldiers turned the capital of one of the world’s poorest countries into an urban war zone, follows an intensive evacuation in Liberia. Burns said the United States also is concerned about a feared outbreak of ethnic violence in Burundi and is conferring with the United Nations about contingency plans.
“Disorder and, in fact, chaos continues in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic,” Burns said. “Soldiers have looted the commercial area and many residences. There have been attacks against the radio station, and there has been a great deal of fighting. The airport is closed to commercial traffic, and access to the airport is quite difficult and limited.”
Secretary of State Warren Christopher told reporters: “It’s a violent situation. We’re concerned about American personnel, and we’re trying to do everything we can to ensure their safety and to evacuate those who can leave.”
Soldiers mutinied Saturday against President Ange Patasse, accusing him of transferring the army’s armory to his presidential guard.
Burns said there is no indication that Americans have been targeted by either the rebel soldiers or loyalist troops. But he said the situation is so unsettled that the U.S. Embassy is urging all American citizens to stay off the streets, where there is an acute danger of being hit by stray bullets.
The Defense Department said that 32 Marines were flown to Bangui on Tuesday by KC-130 military transport from Freetown, Sierra Leone. In addition to assisting in the evacuation of foreigners, the Marines were assigned to protect U.S. Embassy property.
The State Department ordered all dependents and nonessential embassy personnel to leave the country. Burns said that no decision had been made about whether the embassy would be closed. He said that matter would be reevaluated each day in light of changing conditions.
“All Americans are believed to be safe,” Burns said. “There are 252 Americans in the Central African Republic, the majority of them outside of Bangui,” he said. “They are mostly Peace Corps volunteers and missionaries.”
Burns said many Americans have been unable to reach Bangui to board evacuation flights.
About 1,000 French troops, some already based in the former French colony under defense accords, have fanned out in Bangui with tanks to help quell the mutiny in which at least 12 people, including a 7-year-old girl, have been killed.
The Central African Republic, probably best known for the flamboyant 13-year dictatorship of self-proclaimed Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, has a population of 3.2 million. Although it has extensive deposits of diamonds, its per capita income is among the lowest in the world.