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Foreigners Flee Overrun Freetown 300 Americans Among Evacuees Flown To U.S. Warship After Coup

Sat., May 31, 1997

Leaving behind a city overrun by looters and marauding troops, about 900 Americans and other foreigners clambered aboard U.S. military helicopters Friday and were flown out of this west African country to the safety of an American warship.

But hundreds of would-be evacuees, many of them weeping, were left behind when the U.S. Embassy shut down and the last helicopter swooped away from a downtown hotel, trapped in a city still in turmoil from Sunday’s bloody coup by mutinous soldiers.

One woman, from nearby Gambia, sobbed as she watched her American boyfriend climb aboard one of the helicopters.

“They left me behind,” she cried. A Marine handed her $5 for the taxi ride home.

Away from the relative safety of the waterfront hotel, shocked residents surveyed damage to their city and mutineers rumbled through the streets in stolen vehicles, firing in the air and shouting, “If you don’t want us, then you are going to die!”

Many of the foreigners who got out of the country were grateful to the United States for rescuing them from a week of hiding from troops who have stolen and, in some cases, raped and murdered.

“Our government has forgotten us,” said an embittered Italian, Guglielli Narciso, before boarding the helicopter. “They don’t care.”

But perhaps the most eloquent plea to flee the terror in what was once an easygoing, ramshackle town was from an 18-month-old girl found wandering the hotel where the evacuees waited, a British passport and enough cash for a London taxi journey tucked into her shirt.

Michelle - left to fend for herself in the human stampede around the Mammy Yoko hotel - was one of the youngest people evacuated Friday.

U.S. Marines managed to helicopter out 300 Americans and some 600 other foreigners to the USS Kearsarge, ignoring a flight ban by the soldiers who ousted civilian President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah on Sunday. One pregnant evacuee was in labor and some 200 were children.

Officials said all the Americans who wanted to evacuate were believed to have left the country.

Sunday’s coup was the third in five years in Sierra Leone, a mineral-rich country impoverished by decades of corruption, political strife and civil war. Kabbah’s election in February 1996 ended several years of army rule and installed a civilian government.

Earlier Friday, nearly 400 British, Canadians, Australians and other foreigners scrambled aboard a British-chartered jumbo jet at the Freetown airport.

Many said they had been robbed of everything but their clothes by mutinous Sierra Leonian soldiers.

Maj. Johnny Paul Koroma - whose jail breakout Sunday launched the coup - has blamed civilians “dressing up” as soldiers for the looting.

More than 300 expatriates waited out the week at the Mammy Yoko.

The first night they huddled in the basement, listening to troops hold up staff at gunpoint and then help themselves to drinks at the bar.

Michelle, the little girl found wandering in the hotel, was spotted by Mammy Yoko manager Roger Cookes. She was believed to have dual citizenship.

Cookes gave the girl to his fiancee, Vanessa Schillaci, and took a final look at them before they boarded a helicopter. Cookes stayed behind.

He wasn’t surprised at the choice Michelle’s guardians made, leaving her at the hotel. “Our hotel’s become a safe haven,” he said, adding bitterly of the mutineers, “They were bandits, not soldiers.”


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