CAIRO // The exodus of foreigners and Egyptians from Cairo surged Tuesday as dozens of evacuation planes arrived, but the airport itself was still in disarray, overwhelmed with over 4,500 stranded passengers.
Passengers said airport staff was scarce, food supplies were dwindling, flight information was non-existent and some police were demanding bribes before allowing foreigners to board their planes.
At least 18 charter flights had left Cairo early this morning, ferrying more than 1,500 foreigners to European locations, an airport official said.
The country's national carrier, EgyptAir, has been cancelling around three in every four of its flights because it is unable to field the necessary crew amid the 17-hour emergency curfew imposed on the Egyptian capital.
Even having a ticket was no guarantee that tourists could get on a flight.
Canadian tourist Tristin Hutton, 44, said today after his plane landed at Frankfurt airport in Germany: "People holding tickets had difficulties getting on the plane, because the airport in Cairo is pure chaos.
"The terminals are full of panicking people. The ground staff is disappearing, and at the gate, just before entering, we all together had to collect $2,000 for a policeman at the door. He would not let us pass without paying."
Brian Johnson, the deputy head of the Canadian International School in the Egyptian capital, who left Egypt along with 34 of his colleagues, said: "We did not see the protests coming. All of us have been surprised."
The US State Department said it has evacuated more than 1,200 Americans aboard government-chartered planes and expects to fly out roughly 1,400 more in the coming days. Flights on Monday carried US citizens from Cairo to Larnaca, Cyprus; Athens, Greece; and Istanbul, Turkey.
New York-based Pamela Huyser, who had travelled to Egypt for a conference, arrived in Larnaca late Monday unnerved by the violence she witnessed from her ninth-floor hotel balcony in Cairo.
"You cannot even believe what we saw," she said. "We saw people looting, we saw gunfire, people shooting other people. A lot of people working in our hotel, they came out with sticks and knives and bats and they protected us from getting looted."
Greek oil worker Markos Loukogiannakis, who arrived in Athens on a flight carrying 181 passengers, said travellers had to negotiate a string of checkpoints on Monday just to get to the Cairo airport.
"In a 22-kilometre route from our suburb to the airport we had to get through 19 checkpoints, including nine manned by civilians," he said. "There were lots of people gathering at the airport and it was very difficult to get in."
The first plane carrying Chinese evacuated from Cairo was expected in Beijing today with 265 passengers, the Xinhua News Agency reported. The Air China flight was one of a half dozen China has sent to Egypt, including a China Southern Airlines flight that left Tuesday to bring back 220 Hong Kong residents stranded in Luxor.
About 40 South Africans were expected back home today after South African diplomats went to Cairo Airport to meet EgyptAir managers.
An Austrian military plane carrying German, French, Czech, British, Swiss, Chilean and Austrian nationals landed in Vienna on Tuesday morning and a special Austrian Airlines flight arrived shortly after midnight.
In a geopolitical shift, even Iraq decided it would evacuate its citizens, sending three planes to Egypt, including the prime minister's plane, to bring home for free those who wish to return. Thousands of Iraqis had once fled to Egypt to escape the violence in their own country.
Tens of thousands of European tourists flock to Egypt for winter holidays, and the big question tour operators and governments faced was what to do with tourists in other parts of Egypt. Tour operators say they will fly home all their customers this week when their holidays end, or on extra flights, stressing there has not been any unrest in Red Sea resort cities like Hurghada or Sharm el-Sheik.
Germany and Britain, which have thousands of citizens in Egypt right now, have not called for evacuations of tourists, unlike the United States. But Germany said today it was expanding its travel warning to include Red Sea resorts.
Some 1.2 million Germans visit Egypt each year, making it one of the top three sources for tourists.