x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Thousands of Libya evacuees reach safety overseas

Thousands of expatriates reach ports across the Mediterranean, as thousands more still scramble to flee the turmoil in Libya.

Thousands of expatriates reach ports across the Mediterranean, as thousands more still scramble to flee the turmoil in Libya.
Thousands of expatriates reach ports across the Mediterranean, as thousands more still scramble to flee the turmoil in Libya.

ATHENS // Thousands of evacuees from Libya reached ports across the Mediterranean yesterday, with thousands more still scrambling to flee by sea, air or land.

More than 2,800 Chinese workers landed in Heraklion on Crete aboard a Greek ship yesterday. Further to the west, another 2,200 Chinese arrived in Valletta, the capital of Malta. Hours earlier, a US-chartered ferry dropped off more than 300 passengers in Valletta.

The sheer numbers of foreigners leaving Libya as Muammar Qaddafi's regime attacks anti-government protesters has been staggering. As of yesterday, at least 16,000 Chinese workers and 15,000 Turks had been evacuated, most working in the construction and oil industries.

In addition, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council that about 22,000 people have fled across the Libyan border to Tunisia and another 15,000 crossed the border to Egypt.

"There are widespread reports of refugees being harassed and threatened with guns and knives," Mr Ban said, adding that many people who managed to cross the border said their trip was "terrifying".

The United States had advised its citizens residing in Libya as early as February 20 to depart and that it had ensured everyone was informed and assisted in leaving the country, a US State Department spokesman said yesterday.

"We are unaware of large pockets of Americans who wished to evacuate but did not. However, we are aware that there may be Americans still in Libya that may need assistance departing the country," said Philip J Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs.

"We assisted Americans in departing on Dutch, British, Canadian, Turkish and other government sponsored evacuations," Mr Crowley said.

At the harbour in Valletta, women holding babies and other passengers walked down a ramp to solid land after an eight-hour voyage across the choppy Mediterranean Sea.

"Oh, it was a long ordeal. We are glad it's over," said evacuee Sara Ali, a 30-year-old with dual Libyan-American citizenship. "We're just really tired and really happy to be out and safe."

The passengers had been stuck aboard the catamaran since Wednesday, but bad weather had prevented the ferry from leaving Tripoli for three days.

"It was pretty uncomfortable just because of the delay," said Lucile Usielmerazcerna, an evacuee from Santa Cruz, California. "It was really rough waters coming over here."

A group of 2,200 Chinese arrived in Valletta port on a ship from Benghazi yesterday. They are expected to go to the airport and board flights home, according to Maltese authorities.

A Boeing 737 charter flight with 148 seats - likely the last flight organised by the British government - was due to arrive in Tripoli yesterday afternoon. All Britons remaining in Tripoli have been urged to board the plane.

"The security situation at the airport has been deteriorating in recent hours and the route to the airport is becoming more precarious," the British Foreign Office said.

Also yesterday, Britain is chartering a plane from Valletta's airport to bring home a group of Britons.

In Crete, the Chinese government chartered four ferries and 11 hotels, and was having special flights to China aboard two Air China jumbo jets.

Two more Greek ships left Benghazi yesterday, one headed for the port of Piraeus with 400 evacuees from 16 countries and another, carrying mostly Chinese nationals, for Heraklion. A third ferry, also carrying mostly Chinese nationals, is still docked in Benghazi, and huge lines of workers were snaking their way on board. A total of 4,200 people are expected to arrive at Heraklion today, port authorities and shipping agents said.

Travel time between Benghazi and Heraklion is up to 13 hours.

On Thursday, more than 4,000 Chinese workers were evacuated from Crete from Libya. China had at least 30,000 workers in Libya, mostly in the construction and oil industries.

Media reports in Crete said the Philippines government has also expressed an interest in evacuating 4,500 of its citizens to Crete.

"We cannot find available ships and we are in constant talks with shipping companies. There seems to be no problem with hotels," Alexandros Fasoulakis, the Philippines' honorary consul in Crete, was quoted as saying by the Haniotika Nea paper.

A Turkish navy frigate, the TCG Orucreis, and a navy personnel carrier, the TCG Iskenderun, left Benghazi yesterday, carrying 1,221 Turks and 517 other nationals, including Vietnamese and Bosnians. Twelve Turkish C-130 and C-160 military transport planes, meanwhile, continued to fly hundreds more Turks from Tripoli.

A Turkish Airlines plane was transporting about two tonnes of food for the embassy to hand out to Turks still stranded in Libya.

* Associated Press