Countries scramble to evacuate citizens

08:40, February 23, 2011      

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Governments scrambled by air and sea to pick up their citizens stranded by Libya's unrest, with thousands of people crowding the airport to await evacuation.

"The airport was mobbed, you wouldn't believe the number of people," Kathleen Burnett, of Baltimore, Ohio, told The Associated Press, as she stepped off an Austrian Airlines flight from Tripoli to Vienna on Tuesday.

"It was total chaos. Everybody was being checked out by the police but everyone was very obedient."

At least two airlines, British Airways and Emirates, the Middle East's largest, said they were canceling flights to Tripoli, as reports spread that dead bodies littered the streets in the capital of Tripoli.

Britain said it was redeploying a warship, the HMS Cumberland, off the Libyan coast in readiness for a possible evacuation of British citizens.

Two civilian ferries from Turkey arrived in the hard-hit eastern city of Benghazi late Tuesday to evacuate about 3,000 Turkish citizens, the Anatolia news agency reported. The ferries were expected to set sail back for Turkey as soon as the evacuees had boarded.

Meanwhile, about 5,000 Egyptians have returned home from Libya by land and about 10,000 more are waiting to cross the Libya-Egypt border, an Egyptian security official said.

Some people were still getting out on regularly scheduled flights, but many countries were sending planes to fetch their citizens, with Serbia, Russia, the Netherlands, Germany and France reporting they had permission to land in Tripoli.

Greek officials later said the country was ready to evacuate 15,000 Chinese nationals by transferring them by merchant ships to the Greek island of Crete.

Libya is one of the world's biggest oil producers, and many oil companies were also evacuating their expat workers and their families.

Turkey has a huge presence in Libya, with about 25,000 citizens in the country and more than 200 Turkish companies involved in construction projects worth more than $15 billion. Some of the construction sites came under attack by protesters but no Turkish citizen has been harmed, authorities said.

Turkey has so far, evacuated more than 2,000 of its citizens, the Foreign Ministry said.

Italians who returned to Rome from Tripoli on a regularly scheduled Alitalia flight said the situation in the Libyan capital appeared relatively calm Tuesday, but that they expected it would degenerate.

"There are no big troubles in Tripoli, we heard some shots and gunfights, nothing special, and above all we didn't see any airplanes," said Marco Albi as he arrived at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport.

In addition to the continuing commercial Alitalia flights, Italy was prepared to mobilize four to five C-130 aircraft, navy ships and if necessary even military troops to help with any possible evacuation of Italians, Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said.

A Dutch air force transport plane landed in Tripoli to pick up about 100 Dutch citizens. It was expected to arrive back in The Netherlands on Tuesday night.

Two German military planes fetched stranded Europeans in Tripoli and took them over the Mediterranean Sea to Valetta, Malta. In addition, a Lufthansa Airbus A340 jet, with a capacity of some 300 passengers, from Tripoli landed at Frankfurt airport late Tuesday.

The first of four planes Russia dispatched to evacuate Russian nationals, landed at Tripoli on Tuesday. A total of 405 Russian nationals, as well as hundreds of Turkish and Serbian nationals working for the Russian Railways, would be evacuated, the Russian Emergencies Ministry said.

The French Foreign Ministry said two French military planes had arrived in Tripoli, where French citizens had begun to board them.

Dozens of French citizens also arrived at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport on a commercial flight from Tripoli. One French man who did not provide his name as a scrum of reporters huddled around him said foreigners were not being targeted. "It's an internal conflict," he said.


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