Libyan chaos delays Europe's evacuations

Feb. 24, 2011 at 10:49 AM
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BRUSSELS, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- European governments are stepping up efforts to evacuate their citizens from Libya amid spiraling violence in Tripoli.

The governments of Italy, France, Britain and Germany have been scrambling to fly or ship their citizens out of Libya but worsening violence in Tripoli has delayed rescue operations. Around 5,000 EU citizens have been evacuated but nearly as many are still in the country, observers say.

In some cases, Libyan authorities have denied foreign planes to land in Tripoli or to take up refugees; observers say a closure of the airport is possible.

Different media reports have said that Libyan soldiers and foreign mercenaries have shot at demonstrators using heavy-caliber weapons, with hundreds, possibly thousands feared dead. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has vowed not to step down and instead use force to quell the protests.

Security forces have shot at the German Embassy and at the Radisson Hotel in Tripoli, where foreign embassies have set up their crisis groups, Bruno Baumann, a German national who returned from Libya this week, told the online version of German daily Bild.

"The situation is very tense, I've seen fist fights at the airport, there are thousands of guest workers, often with small children, trying to get out but they don't have a plane ticket," he said. "Planes are overbooked and the airport could be closed any minute, so the situation is very dramatic."

Europe is apparently mulling to step in with military force.

Germany has sent 600 troops aboard two frigates and a supply vessel to Libya to help evacuate the roughly 160 Germans still believed to be in the violence-torn country, Bild reports. The ships are to arrive in Libya in the coming days. The Netherlands, Russia and Romania have sent military or special purpose airplanes to evacuate their citizens.

The nation quickest to react to the crisis has been Turkey, which has thousands of its citizens in the country, mainly as guest workers. More than 7,000 Turks have been evacuated but thousands more are waiting to board a plane or a ferry.

Greece has been helping to evacuate Chinese and other citizens via the Mediterranean, with Greek ferries shuttling between Libya and the Greek island of Crete.

The United States has begun to evacuate thousands of U.S. citizens via a ferry bound for Malta but its departure was delayed because of rough seas, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of foreign nationals are trying to leave the country by land, observers say. Many have crossed into neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental agency, said in a statement released Wednesday.

The group estimates that some 1.5 million migrants were staying in Libya, a popular end destination as well as transit country, before the unrest began.

Although a significant number of the migrants are from Africa, there are also migrants from other parts of the world. Among them are Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Chinese, the IOM said.

European nations have been concerned of what Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has likened to a "biblical exodus" of migrants flooding Europe's southern countries.

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