The French government began airlifting hundreds of its citizens to Paris on Wednesday as violent mobs continued roaming the streets of this city, long regarded as among the most peaceful and prosperous in Africa.

About 700 French nationals left on three jetliners, with more scheduled to depart Thursday, officials said. An estimated 1,500 others, meanwhile, turned a French military base on the outskirts of the airport into a sort of squatter camp.

The U.S. Embassy and other missions sent escorts into the city to retrieve Americans, Canadians, Spaniards and others, the Associated Press reported, calling the evacuation one of the largest of Africa's post-independence era. Spain, Belgium and Italy sent military cargo planes to aid in the evacuations.

At the French military base, men, women and children sprawled on mattresses or stretched out precariously across rows of chairs. Their luggage and countless empty water bottles were strewn about.

Some of the French gave up on sleeping, choosing to chat and smoke away their final hours in Africa in the warm, humid Ivory Coast night. The subject often turned to the sudden upheaval of the last week, as a battle between President Laurent Gbagbo and a rebel group from the north shifted into a struggle between Gbagbo and Ivory Coast's former colonial rulers, the French.

"The president, Mr. Gbagbo, wants to kill all French, all white people," Jean-Luc Vacher, 50, a welding company manager, said as he sat outside with his wife, Christine, and their dog. "We are very, very afraid."

They recalled the gunfire of Saturday, the day that Ivory Coast forces bombed a position of French peacekeepers, killing nine of them as well as an American aid worker, after breaking a cease-fire that had lasted more than a year. Ivorian officials, who had ordered attacks on rebels, called the strike an accident, but the French military retaliated by destroying the tiny Ivory Coast air force and seizing the main airport.

Mobs took to the streets soon after, accusing the French of siding with the rebels from the country's mostly Muslim north and seeking to unseat Gbagbo. Calls for calm by Gbagbo and others have not quelled the unrest, nor has a growing French military presence here.

Vacher and his wife said they did not sleep at all Saturday night as they listened to gunfire. It continued Sunday as they huddled, terrified to leave their home. Their decision Tuesday to leave was especially difficult, they said, because both were born in Africa and have lived much of their lives there.

As the convoys rounded up foreigners from their homes for evacuation, Ivory Coast's state television alternately appealed for calm and for a mass uprising against the French, the Associated Press reported. French citizens darted out to the banks of lagoons, which surround the capital, and were plucked to safety by French soldiers in boats.

Only a few hundred Americans remain in Ivory Coast, many of them missionaries and aid workers.

Foreign nationals gather at the airport in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's largest city.