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LIBYA: Thousands of migrant workers flee for their lives

March 2, 2011 |  8:59 am

Thousands of migrant workers continued their exodus out of Libya on Wednesday, desperate to escape an escalating crisis that has at times triggered pitched battles between pro- and anti-government forces, according to Western news sources in Libya.

Officials at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Tuesday that the situation in Ras Ajdir on the Tunisia border had reached a “crisis point.”

The U.N. agency, citing Tunisian authorities, said between 70,000 and 75,000 people had fled Libya since the turmoil began on Feb. 20, with tens of thousands of them stuck at the border, and more expected.

U.N. officials said that on Monday they had erected 500 tents close to the border in a new transit camp. An additional 1,000 tents had been scheduled to go up on Tuesday, according to information released by the agency, giving shelter to about 12,000 by Tuesday evening. Two airlifts are planned for Thursday with tents and supplies for up to 10,000 people, U.N. officials said.

Among those fleeing are groups of migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa, who have had a particularly tough time, according to some news reports.

The English version of television channel Al Jazeera reported that many black African laborers were living in fear inside Libya, “as many have been attacked after being mistaken for mercenaries hired by Kadafi.”

Rumors have been rife about the Libyan leader importing fighters from sub-Saharan Africa to help put down the revolt.

In Benghazi, Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland reported Wednesday that black workers hailing from countries such as Sudan and Nigeria have seen their homes and workshops destroyed. Many refused to leave their compounds for fear of being targeted as mercenaries.

One Nigerian worker who had ventured out told Rowland that he fled for his life after being chased by a mob, some of whom were wielding small swords. They shouted at him to stop but he refused, saying that he feared they would kill him. 

According to Rowland, “Many African workers said they felt safer under the Kadafi regime -- stinging criticism of a revolution that aims to bring freedom, tolerance and equality for all.”

-- Ann M. Simmons