Rough Waters Strand Americans in Libya

Hundreds of Americans seeking to flee the widening chaos in Libya remained stuck in the capital, Tripoli, on Thursday as high seas prevented an evacuation ferry from departing for Malta, an American official said. Because of the rough weather, the ferry probably would not begin the six-hour voyage until Friday.

“The seas are quite bad,” said Elijah J. Waterman, a spokesman for the American Embassy in Malta. “They’re just holding in place right now.”

The United States sent the seagoing ferry — a tourist vessel with flat-screen televisions and a small casino — on Wednesday to transport about 600 people, mostly Americans, after being turned down for permission to land a chartered plane in Tripoli. The passengers would remain on the ferry, which has been secured, and were being provided with food and water, Mr. Waterman said.

The State Department has said several thousand United States citizens, most of them holding dual citizenship, were in Libya when the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi began.

Meanwhile, two Greek ferries sent to help evacuate 4,500 Chinese workers departed from the eastern city of Benghazi on Thursday and headed for the island of Crete despite the churning Mediterranean waters, The Associated Press reported. The Greek government is helping China to evacuate many of its 30,000 workers from Libya.

Whether by plane or bus, ferry or foot, tens of thousands of foreign citizens continued to scramble for a way out of Libya on Thursday as forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi fought to maintain control of a shrinking portion of the oil-rich country.

Turkey appeared to have had the most success so far in spiriting its people out of the country, packing more than 5,000 onto ferries and planes that left over the last several days.

As some nations rushed to coordinate rescues, migrant workers from poorer nations in the Middle East, Asia and Africa — the majority of the work force in Libya, according to animmigration expert — were often fending for themselves, with their home countries unable to organize evacuations. In buses piled high with luggage and in rented cars, many streamed over the borders into Tunisia and Egypt.

Those fleeing the country, as well as those who had not yet found a way out, described scenes of chaos and deprivation. Protesters claimed that the opposition was taking control of cities close to Tripoli, where Colonel Qaddafi has mobilized mercenaries and militiamen to defend his stronghold.

One worker, Suang Upara from Thailand, reported that Libyans had burglarized the place where he was living with other migrants.

“They used knives to threaten us and stole everything from us,” Mr. Upara, 29, said in a phone interview from Benghazi, where more than 200 people were reported to have been killed in a government crackdown.

He said that he was subsisting on one small loaf of bread each day and dirty water filtered through tissue paper.

Chinese reports said that a site run by a Chinese construction company in eastern Libya had been attacked by armed looters who forced nearly 1,000 workers out of their dormitories.

The daunting nature of the evacuation led several nations to turn to others for help. Turkey, which said it had mounted its largest evacuation effort ever, said 21 countries including Russia and the United States had asked for assistance in helping their citizens to leave. Officials in Ankara said that a 27-year-old Turkish worker had been killed in Tripoli, but they gave no details.

Israel, meanwhile, agreed to allow about 300 Palestinians to enter the West Bank from Libya even though they did not have residency documents for the territory. While the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, welcomed Israel’s offer, he said he had asked for thousands more to be allowed entry, according to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.

The International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental agency, estimates that as many as 1.5 million migrants were working in Libya at the start of the strife, which appears to have led to the deaths of hundreds of people. Many of the migrants went there to work in construction, which had been booming, and in Libya’s rich oil fields.

Fears grew in Europe that countries like Italy would be flooded with needy people fleeing Libya; Italy’s foreign minister spoke of a possible “biblical exodus.”

Though Turkey had rescued thousands of its citizens by Wednesday, about 25,000 were still stranded in Libya. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that Turkey would keep ferries running nonstop and was expecting at least some of the ferries it dispatched to Libya to carry medical and food supplies to Libyan civilians.

With scheduled flights overwhelmed by the number of people trying to leave and some airlines canceling service, governments around the world were trying to send ships and chartered aircraft.

Two Italian naval vessels headed to eastern Libyan ports to rescue citizens from cities like Benghazi whose airports were damaged.

Jean-Philippe Chauzy, chief spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said that many migrants from poorer nations were “bunkering down for the moment.”

“Over the past 18 hours,” he said on Wednesday, there were “only four nationals from Guinea who have made it to Tunisia.”

“That’s certainly not representative of the sub-Saharan Africans employed in Libya,” he said. “It’s a trickle.”

On Wednesday, Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, warned lawmakers that as many as 300,000 migrant workers in Libya could seek refuge in Europe, with many ending up in nearby countries, including Italy and Greece.

“We are not asking Europe to distribute the immigrants across its territory, but we are asking for a serious mechanism on how to split the economic and social burden of an immigration wave,” he said. “Europe needs to assume its duties.”

But Mr. Chauzy said those sorts of warnings were premature. For those who cannot flee by air or sea, the major points of exit will continue to be Egypt and Tunisia, he said.

As migrants poured across both borders, Mr. Chauzy said there were reports that African workers desperate to leave but lacking money were trying to reach Libya’s southern border with Niger — a desert trek of more than 1,000 miles.

“It’s pretty awful,” he said, “even in the best of times.”

Reporting was contributed by Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul; Brian Knowlton from Washington; Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem; Poypiti Amatatham from Bangkok; Mona El-Naggar from Cairo; and Rachel Donadio from Rome.

By J. DAVID GOODMAN

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/25/world/africa/25evacuate.html

 

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