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LIBYA: Massive evacuations underway

February 22, 2011 |  5:22 pm

Evacs Governments scrambled by air and sea to pick up citizens stranded by Libya's unrest Tuesday, with thousands crowding the airport to await evacuation and Egyptians gathering at the border to escape the chaos.

"The airport was mobbed, you wouldn't believe the number of people," Kathleen Burnett of Baltimore told the Associated Press as she stepped off an Austrian Airlines flight from Tripoli to Vienna. "It was total chaos. Everybody was being checked out by the police but everyone was very obedient."

At least two airlines, British Airways and Emirates, the Middle East's largest, said they were canceling flights to Tripoli, as reports spread that bodies of protesters littered the streets of neighborhoods in the capital, according to the Associated Press.

Two civilian ferries from Turkey arrived in the hard-hit eastern city of Benghazi late Tuesday to evacuate about 3,000 Turkish citizens, the Anatolia news agency reported. The ferries were expected to set sail for Turkey as soon as the evacuees boarded. Turkey sent the ferries and a military vessel after the country was unable to get landing permission at the city's airport.

Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek said Turkish ferries could help evacuate up to 6,000 people per day, if Libyan authorities allow the vessels to dock at Benghazi, according to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, about 5,000 Egyptians have returned home from Libya by land and about 10,000 more are waiting to cross the Libya-Egypt border, an Egyptian security official told the Associated Press. Egyptian officials said they would also send six commercial and two military planes to repatriate thousands more caught in the revolt against Moammar Kadafi's regime, according to the AP.

Some people were still evacuating on regularly scheduled flights, but many countries were sending planes to fetch their citizens, with Serbia, Russia, the Netherlands, Germany and France reporting to the Associated Press that they had permission to land in Tripoli.

"The situation is very variable and our basic issue is who is in control of what in the country so that our landing and overflight requests are answered," Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitris Dollis told the Associated Press.

Greek officials later said the country was ready to evacuate 15,000 Chinese nationals by transferring them by merchant ships to the Greek island of Crete.

Libya is one of the world's biggest oil producers, and many oil companies were also evacuating their expat workers and their families.

Turkey has a huge presence in Libya, with about 25,000 citizens in the country and more than 200 Turkish companies involved in construction projects worth more than $15 billion. Some of the construction sites came under attack by protesters but no Turkish citizen has been harmed, authorities told the Associated Press.

Turkey has so far evacuated more than 2,000 of its citizens, the Foreign Ministry told the AP. On Tuesday, a Turkish Airlines plane flew back about 250 Turks — who crossed into Egypt by land — from the Egyptian city of Alexandria.

One passenger told Turkey's NTV television at Istanbul airport the journey between the Libyan city of Tobruk and the Egyptian border was "frightening because of the gangs armed with guns and machines guns who are roaming the streets."

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said 10 other countries have asked for help from Turkey to evacuate their citizens, though he did not identify them to the AP.

In Egypt, Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit accused Kadafi's son Seif Islam of inciting violence against Egyptians by suggesting they had joined the protests against his father, according to the Associated Press.

An Egyptian security official told the Associated Press that troops have beefed up their presence on the border with Libya and set up a field hospital there. He did not give details and spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to share such information.

Italians who returned to Rome from Tripoli on a regularly scheduled Alitalia flight told the AP that the situation in the Libyan capital appeared relatively calm Tuesday, but that they expected it would degenerate.

"There are no big troubles in Tripoli, we heard some shots and gunfights, nothing special, and above all we didn't see any airplanes," Marco Albi said as he arrived at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport.

In addition to the continuing commercial Alitalia flights, Italy was prepared to mobilize four or five C-130 aircraft, naval ships and, if necessary, even military troops to help with any possible evacuation of Italians, Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa told the Associated Press.

The Italian destroyer Franceso Mimbelli, which has a crew of 400 people and is based in Taranto, in southern Italy, has been mobilized but its itinerary wasn't announced.

A Dutch air force transport plane landed in Tripoli to pick up about 100 Dutch citizens. It was expected to arrive back in The Netherlands on Tuesday night, according to the Associated Press.

Two German military planes fetched stranded Europeans in Tripoli and took them over the Mediterranean Sea to Valetta, Malta, and a Lufthansa Airbus A340-600 jet, with a capacity of some 300 passengers, from Tripoli landed at Frankfurt airport late Tuesday, according to the AP.

"The airport was an absolute chaos — many people from North Africa trying to leave and go home, thousands," John Dowley of London told the AP upon arriving in Frankfurt.

Eva Kling Leonardt, who works for German industrial conglomerate Siemens in Tripoli, seemed relieved to have left the country on time.

"Everything that happens in Libya comes out only filtered. It is an uprising. It is a revolution," she told the Associated Press.

The first of four planes Russia dispatched to evacuate employees of Russian companies, including Russian Railways and Gazprom, also landed at Tripoli on Tuesday, the AP reported. A total of 405 Russian nationals, as well as hundreds of Turkish and Serbian nationals working for the Russian Railways, would be evacuated, the Russian Emergencies Ministry told the AP.

The French Foreign Ministry told the AP that two French military planes had arrived in Tripoli Tuesday, where French citizens had begun to board them.

--  Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Photo: People waiting to be evacuated from Libya gather in the check-in hall at Tripoli airport Tuesday. Credit: Reuters