x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Foreigners in Libya dash for border

Libyan security forces confiscate evidence of bloody uprising from foreigners fleeing the country.

RAS AJDIR, TUNISIA // Last Wednesday an Egyptian construction worker named Ahmed captured video footage of Libyan police opening fire on thousands of foreigners try to flee the country via Tripoli's airport, he said.

"I saw at least three people killed," said Ahmed, 25, who declined to give his surname. "And I used my phone to film it."

Ahmed's purported footage will never go public. Yesterday Libyan security forces confiscated his mobile phone as he fled to Tunisia, he said - part of the government's efforts to smother evidence of violence as the country's leader, Muammar Qaddafi, fights a growing revolt.

United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said on Friday that up to 1,000 people have been killed this month. That evening Col Qaddafi's forces shot dead protesters demanding his departure in Tripoli and the western city of Zawiyah.

Human Rights Watch has confirmed 300 deaths so far but believes, based on reports, that the current death toll has climbed significantly, said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Libyan authorities have tried to shut down phone and internet networks, and have largely barred foreign media. But a picture of bloody upheaval has leaked out via unconfirmed reports such as Ahmed's.

The violence has sent foreigners rushing to escape the country - a trend that accelerated after claims last week by Mr Qaddafi and his son, Saif al Islam Qaddafi, that foreigners were orchestrating the revolt.

Ahmed is one of thousands of mainly Egyptian foreign workers who have fled from Libya into Tunisia since violence broke out, entering the country at the barren frontier post of Ras Ajdir.

Most tell a similar story: growing fear, a dash for the border, dozens of checkpoints, and mobile phones systematically confiscated by Libyan security forces.

"They didn't even search me for money - look, I still have some," said Samir Wafa, a Tunisian engineer who fled Tripoli yesterday by taxi. "But I don't have anything else. I had to leave everything behind."

Yesterday afternoon, Mr Wafa was waiting at Ras Ajdir for a bus to depart for his home city of Souss. Nearby, refugees were trudging over the frontier, towing suitcases, and lashed by a winter wind.

Some of them paused at a large green tent for free tuna sandwiches from the Islamic Charity Association, one of many Tunisian charity groups that have pitched in to help arriving refugees.

At a table inside the tent, young men in beards and jellabas were folding tuna and fiery red hrissa sauce into baguettes, which they sawed into single portions.

"Tunisia is leaving its own problems behind," said the group's organiser at Ras Ajdir, Amar Younsi, referring to the ouster last month of Tunisia's authoritarian president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. "Now it's time for us to help others."

Tunisian civil authorities are working with the country's army, civil society groups, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Tunisian Red Crescent to receive refugees.

Some are housed at a tent camp set up by the army, while others have bedded down in a warehouse at the border post. Many are conveyed by bus to repatriation flights from the nearby island of Djerba.

So far, 30,000 refugees have passed through Ras Ajdir, said Houda Chalchoul, Assistant Legal Officer at the UNHCR's Tunisia branch. While the flow of people appears steady, "we have no idea how many refugees are still inside Libya", she said.

 

jthorne@thenational.ae