x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Refugee crisis on Libya's border

Flood of migrants means Tunisian border guards struggle to cope as 75,000 flee, while in Libya itself rebels and Qaddafi loyalists maintain uneasy standoff.

Pro-Qaddafi supporters stage a small rally, during a government-provided tour for foreign media to see trucks carrying food aid which according to the government was headed to Benghazi.
Pro-Qaddafi supporters stage a small rally, during a government-provided tour for foreign media to see trucks carrying food aid which according to the government was headed to Benghazi.

TUNIS // A humanitarian crisis was building on Libya's border with Tunisia yesterday as tens of thousands of refugees fled the Qaddafi regime's violent repression of a popular revolt.

Tempers flared and scuffles broke out at the Tunisian border post of Ras Ajdir as border guards struggled to control the flood of migrants streaming across from western Libya.

Guards periodically let small groups of refugees through a blue metal gate into Tunisia as immigration officials raced to stamp passports. But some people scaled the wall instead, as guards hit them with sticks and fired warning shots in the air.

Tunisian authorities say up to 75,000 people have fled across the border since February 20. The United Nations' High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said 14,000 people had crossed on Monday alone, and yesterday's figure was expected to be up to 15,000.

Lugging mattresses, blankets, overstuffed duffel bags and suitcases, the expatriate labourers jostled for position in long queues, waiting to be processed.

"If you have registered move to the side!" screamed a Tunisian army official, waving his arms and blowing a whistle at a group of exhausted and confused-looking Egyptian day labourers.

At least 10,000 migrant workers, mostly Egyptians but also from China, Thailand, Morocco, Turkey and elsewhere, massed at Ras Ajdir, where the UNHCR has built a tent camp to house them. It plans to expand the camp's capacity to 20,000.

The refugees joined thousands of others who had been stuck there for days. "We slept here in the cold, on the asphalt," said Mustafa Shaheen, an Egyptian who had been there since Saturday. He was surrounded by hundreds of Egyptian men sitting on blankets alongside the road, their baggage piled up around them as they waited for instructions.

The Egyptian government has provided repatriation flights from the nearby island of Djerba, but these are not enough to meet the demand.

Egypt says about 69,000 people have fled there from Libya since February 19, via part of the country under the control of rebels opposed to the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.

Other nationals have been repatriated directly from rebel-held territory in eastern Libya. India said yesterday it had brought out more than 3,000 of its citizens, with 1,100 leaving by ship from the city of Bengazhi, where rebel leaders have begun to form an opposition government.

It is unclear how long the stranded refugees will remain camped at the border, awaiting repatriation. The UNHCR has highlighted the urgent need for more transport, and yesterday voiced concerns that some sub-Saharan refugees were not being allowed to cross into Tunisia.

Government and rebel forces appeared to have reached a standoff yesterday, with no major fighting reported during daylight hours.

However, Libyan forces strengthened their hold over western areas of the country near Nalut and the border crossing of Dehiba.

Western countries have steadily ramped up pressure on Colonel Qaddafi to relinquish power. Susan Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, said yesterday that the US would continue that pressure until Colonel Qaddafi stepped down.

The US has frozen $30 billion (Dh110bn) of Qaddafi assets and moved warships and aircraft closer to Libya, as American and European leaders consider imposing a military no-fly zone on Libya.

Mrs Rice said it was premature to talk about US military support to rebels because they had not formed a united front. "We are in communication with leaders of civil society, all aspects of Libyan life," she said. "We are not going to be in the business of picking leaders or dictating how that transition ought to evolve."

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called yesterday for an "aggressive" international response to both Col Qaddafi and Iran.

The European Union is planning to meet on March 11 to discuss the crisis. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, warned yesterday that Libya was at risk of collapsing into a "protracted civil war". "In the years ahead, Libya could become a peaceful democracy, or it could face protracted civil war," she told the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives. "The stakes are high."

She told Congress that the US must lead an international response to the crisis, including expanding already tough financial and travel sanctions against Qaddafi, his family and confidants and possibly imposing a no-fly zone. "The United States continues to look at every single lever it can use against the Qaddafi regime," she said.

She said US officials were aware that defecting military officers were attempting to organise fighters to defend areas they hold and "even try to take Tripoli away from Colonel Qaddafi".

Mrs Clinton said that protective military air cover in Libya was a possibility, but would be challenging. "There are arguments that would favour it, questions that would be raised about it, but it is under active consideration," she said.

jthorne@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse