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Escape from Sierra Leone // Sierra Leone evacuation: a mission of joy, sorrow

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 a U.S. 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. An anxious Marine handed her $5 for the taxi ride home.

Away from the relative safety of the waterfront hotel, shocked residents surveyed damage to the 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 what was once an easygoing 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 chaos around the 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 low-ranking soldiers who ousted civilian President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah on Sunday. One pregnant evacuee was in labor and some 200 were children.

The evacuees will later be taken to Conakry, Guinea, and the Americans will leave there on flights chartered by the State Department. Other nationals will be on their own once in Guinea.

"We are very sorry we could not have everybody on board who wanted to go," U.S. Charge d'Affaires Anne Wright said before boarding the final helicopter. "We hope we have got those who have no way to sustain themselves here."

An embassy statement cited "the seriously deteriorating situation," in the decision to shut down operations.

Officials said all the Americans who wanted to evacuate were believed to have left the country. About 120 Americans who had registered with the embassy had stayed behind, Wright said.

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 military rule and installed a civilian government.

In Freetown, the mutineers joined forces with the Revolutionary United Front rebel army, which had waged a five-year war against the government, to cement control of the capital. Checkpoints went up around the city, manned by shabbily dressed soldiers armed with machine guns.

West African countries, led by Nigeria, sent in reinforcements _ bringing their total number in Sierra Leone to more than 1,500 troops _ and warned they reserved a military option to restore Kabbah to power.

On Friday, that option appeared to be turning into a threat, with Western diplomats in Freetown reporting a massing of Ghanaian troops on Sierra Leone's border.

Maj. Johnny Paul Koroma _ whose jail escape Sunday launched the coup _ blamed Kabbah for the collapse of a treaty with the United Front rebels and said the government he planned to install would cement peace.

But Koroma could barely control his own troops. They burst into homes and businesses, taking what they could and often burning them down when there was nothing to be grabbed.

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.

"Seven of them just went through our home, taking everything," Maureen Cummings, a 36-year-old Briton, said at London's Gatwick Airport Friday.

Koroma has blamed civilians "dressing up" as soldiers for the looting.

More than 300 expatriates waited out the week at the hotel.

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

He gave the girl to his fiancee 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."