India struggles with Libya evacuation, concerns mount

NEW DELHI Wed Mar 2, 2011 3:20am EST

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's government is facing criticism at home for failing to evacuate citizens swiftly out of Libya as China did, but it said such a comparison was unfair.

A quarter of about 18,000 Indians, most of them employed in the oil, construction and health sectors in Libya, have been brought out after the government chartered cruise ships, and through special flights of the state carrier Air India.

China, meanwhile, evacuated 32,000 of its citizens in an operation involving four heavy-lift IL-76 military aircraft, chartered aircraft and a navy frigate.

The United States has already completed evacuation operations, with the last Americans flying out of the besieged capital Tripoli Friday.

"We are not in competition with China here. We're focused on the task of bringing back our people safe and sound. Please let's not devalue this," Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said in a tweet as concerns increased about the fate of Indians stranded in the North African country.

The United States said Libya could sink into civil war unless long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi quits amid fears that the uprising, the bloodiest against long-serving rulers in the Middle East, could cause a humanitarian crisis.

The Indian navy has sent three ships to help in the evacuation but they will take a week to reach Libya.

A Defense Ministry official said the air force was on stand-by to deploy IL-76 aircraft to rescue Indians stranded in the interior of Libya, but it would need overflight clearance from a host of countries.

"Out of Libya India crawls, the rest are safe at home," the Indian Express said, adding India remained the only major country with thousands of nationals stranded there.

Tuesday, Indian Foreign Minister S.M.Krishna spoke to his Libyan counterpart, Moussa Koussa, seeking help to evacuate Indians.

The Indian Foreign Ministry said in a statement it was looking at setting up air bridges with the cities of Sirte in the east and Sebha in the south to fly citizens out.

The government has also turned to private Indian air carriers to run flights to Tunisia and Cairo to pick up citizens who had landed there fleeing the turmoil in Libya.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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