x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Fleeing expats fight chaos, criminals and weather on way out of Libya

Foreigners who made it out of Libya described bodies hanging from electricity poles in Benghazi and militia trucks driving around loaded with dead bodies.

People outside Tripoli's International airport.  Air passengers who managed to get out of Tripoli described a scene of chaos at the airport, with people shoving and climbing over each other to get on planes.
People outside Tripoli's International airport. Air passengers who managed to get out of Tripoli described a scene of chaos at the airport, with people shoving and climbing over each other to get on planes.

Foreigners fleeing Libya by the thousands yesterday had to cope with chaos, criminals, civil war and bad weather.

Two ships braved churning seas yesterday to deliver 4,500 Chinese workers to Crete, while rough weather further west left hundreds of Americans stranded on a ferry in Tripoli and Britain pondered whether to send in its military to evacuate oil workers stranded in remote sites by fierce fighting.

Those who made it out of Libya described frightening scenes: bodies hanging from electricity poles in Benghazi and militia trucks driving around loaded with dead bodies. A video carried by one of the evacuees showed a red car with people inside that had apparently been crushed by a tank.

George Suchomel, a Canadian from Collingwood, Ontario, gave The Associated Press the video, which he said was given to him by militiamen in Benghazi to smuggle out. Mr Suchomel, who works for the German construction company Arcadis, said his company's offices and lodgings in Benghazi were raided and cars and electronic equipment were looted.

In Crete, some passengers smiled and waved from the decks of the Greek-flagged Hellenic Spirit, which sailed from Benghazi. Others departing the ship needed medical attention.

Pantelis Kimendiadis, a Greek oil worker employed near Benghazi, said moments after stepping off the ferry: "We heard lots of gunfire and saw many burned-out buildings,.

"We have Libyan friends and colleagues who got us out. Our lives were in their hands," he said.

Up to 15,000 Chinese are expected to arrive by ferry on Crete and fly home on chartered flights in one of China's largest foreign evacuations in recent times. China has more than 30,000 citizens in Libya. People who managed to flee Tripoli by air described chaos at the airport, with people shoving and climbing over each other to get on planes.

Ewan Black of Britain told the BBC as he got off a flight at Gatwick Airport in the UK: "The airport is just a zoo. There's about 10,000 people there, all trying to get out. It's just absolutely manic, basically it's uncontrolled.

"I lost all my luggage. It's literally bodies climbing over bodies to get to the door," Mr Black said.

Americans who got aboard the Maria Dolores ferry at Tripoli's As-shahab port on Wednesday faced a long delay. Strong winds have been whipping up high waves in the Mediterranean, and the 600-passenger catamaran ferry was not likely to leave for Malta until today.

"Citizens are safe on board," the US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley tweeted.

In London, the British government was holding an emergency meeting to decide whether the military needs to evacuate almost 200 UK oil workers and their colleagues who hail from other countries. The foreign secretary, William Hague, said the panel would discuss evacuation options with the defence secretary, Liam Fox.

Mr Hague said he did not rule out the use of British special forces to rescue the British workers marooned in desert camps.

Officials said the British navy frigate HMS Cumberland was expected to dock at Benghazi and transport passengers to Malta.

Turkey managed to evacuate more than 7,000 of its 25,000 citizens in Libya, mostly by two ships that arrived yesterday in the Turkish port of Marmaris, and said it would evacuate more foreigners.

Witnesses said Benghazi, now controlled by anti-government protesters, has seen fierce fighting, looting, and killings.

Ali Tumkaya, the human resources manager for Turkey's Sembol company, which was building a university in Benghazi, said militias raided the Benghazi airport. He saw vans with more than 20 dead bodies, who, Mr Tumkaya said, appeared to be mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa.

Another Turkish evacuee saw dead men hanging in the street. Serdar Taskin, who worked for the Mammar Arabia company in Benghazi, told the AP in Marmaris: "Our construction site was burned down. The looters came. There were a few men hanging from poles, electric poles,". He did not know if the dead were protesters supporters of Colonel Qaddafi.

Libyan authorities, meanwhile, were making it difficult for airlines to obtain landing permits for charter flights into Tripoli. That, and other operational and safety problems including deteriorating airport security, forced some airlines to halt operations.

Lufthansa of Germany' and Austrian Airlines yesterday suspended flights to Tripoli, as did the Italian carrier Alitalia, one of the last commercial airlines flying out of the country.

Companies were scrambling to get foreign workers out. Paul Beat, the regional director for the Middle East and Africa at Control Risks, said his firm had helped about 300 people working in Libya to get out.

"We're getting the sense that there are still a lot of people trapped," he said. "A lot of them are down in the oil fields, but there are many in the cities as well who can't get out and can't get to the airport."

Control Risks, which consults with companies on contingency plans, is advising many clients to stay put if they cannot secure a safe route out of the country.

Pulling people from Libya has been much more dangerous than evacuations from Egypt, Mr Beat said.

"The unrest is very widespread," he said. "In Egypt there was almost no targeting of foreigners, whereas in Libya there are a fair amount of criminal acts, where instead of putting up roadblocks to check people, they put up roadblocks and rob people."

All was relatively quiet in downtown Tripoli until Sunday night, with expatriates going out for walks and playing tennis in the local sports clubs, said Anne Furuya, who has lived in Libya for the past eight years before fleeing to Malta on Tuesday.

Ms Furuya, whose husband works for Nissan in the country, said: "That night we started hearing some people shouting and crowds forming. After the sun set, we started hearing some activity and gunfire."

By Monday, a panic was setting in. Her neighbour started building small barricades on the street. When she went to the airport to buy tickets to leave, there was growing tension among crowds trying to get out. That evening, there was a sudden burst of "severe gunfire" at a government office facing the sea.

"We knew it was time to leave," she said. The next morning she headed to the airport, where the crowds were starting to get rowdy. Police beat several people to calm them down.

Ms Furuya said a group of her friends at the oil company OMV, which is partially owned by Abu Dhabi, had formed a convoy and were heading to Tunisia because there was not enough room on flights.

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bhope@thenational.ae

*With additional reporting by the Associated Press