Pressure relieved as Libya refugee airlift kicks in

Thu Mar 3, 2011 8:17am EST

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* Flow of refugees dwindles

* Word of airlift relieves desperation in camps

By Douglas Hamilton

RAS JDIR, Tunisia, March 3 (Reuters) - An organized international airlift relieved the high pressure human flood from Libya into Tunisia on Thursday, as word spread to thousands of stranded refugees that planes were taking them home.

After three days of chaos and a moment of panic when troops fired into the air to control crowds, a sense of order and calm was established at the Ras Jdir border crossing.

Egyptian migrant labourers, many working illegally in Libya, were being bussed from a U.N. relief agency transit camp near the frontier to Djerba airport where some 40 evacuation flights were due to fly them out to Cairo during the day.

Long queues built up outside the airport terminal and the check-in desks were packed.

France was providing six flights every day for the next days, said the French ambassador to Tunisia, Boris Boillon.

British charters have also begun a shuttle to Egypt.

"The total number of people who have crossed so far, from Feb. 20 to today, is from 90,000 to 95,000," said Firas Kayal of the UNHCR. "Yesterday alone there were 9,000 with Bangladeshis the majority."

Egyptian authorities said 43,000 of their nationals had crossed and 30,000 had already been taken home, Kayal added.

In Egypt, officials said dozens of flights were being organised to bring stranded Egyptians home from Libya and Tunisia, as well as from Malta, where some had escaped by sea.

"We got requests from France, Britain, Spain, and a number of Egyptian businessmen to organise flights to transport Egyptians to Egypt ...," said Sameh el-Hanafy, president of the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority.

At the border, several hundred Vietnamese workers from a construction company waited quietly inside the border compound for their transport, which duly arrived and bore them away.

"We are more than 10,000 Vietnamese working in Libya mainly in construction," said one English-speaking man who gave his name as Tom.

"At first we thought it was alright. We didn't think of leaving. But then it wasn't safe for us anymore. They (Libyans) don't like us anymore," he said.

Thousands of Bangladeshis contracted by a South Korean company sat around in their own makeshift camp of blankets, baggage and plastic sheeting, awaiting busses out.

"We waited three days on the Libyan side. It was very difficult. No eating, no water," said a Bangladeshi man, who complained along with others in his group that the South Korean Hanil company "hasn't paid us for two months".

PUT OUT MORE FLAGS

A Libyan helicopter made a brief pass over the Libyan side of the frontier post and a string of green Libyan flags had been put up along the front of the customs and immigration lanes, presumably to reassert some official presence at a site that had looked virtually abandoned earlier in the week.

There was no evidence of Libyan liaison officials on their side. Efforts to establish coordination were still going on.

The flow dwindled to a trickle. But it was not clear if this meant all those who wanted out had now left, or if there were still some bottleneck behind the border zone, with more waiting in Libya where reporters are not able to check.

The atmosphere on the Tunisian side was quieter, but still volatile.

A mob of Egyptians, who have protested angrily that Cairo has done nothing to help them, roughly dragged a frightened man in a dark suit to a fenced-off area on the Tunisian side of the border and threw him out.

"He was an Egyptian from the embassy," one of them said.

With no obvious shortage of basic food and water, and many now given access to shelter in tents, refugees who have spent days on the road and days camped out under blankets on the border were now hungry for information -- which is still in short supply -- and power to charge mobile telephones.

Bangladeshi men cheered when told an airlift was now under way, with planes from Britain, France and other countries (??) shuttling into Djerba to take people home.

A Muslim call to prayer drifted over the camp at noontime and men rested under blankets in the sunshine.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

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