Pressure relieved as Tunisia refugee airlift kicks in

RAS JDIR, Tunisia Thu Mar 3, 2011 3:53pm EST

1 of 5. A Bangladeshi migrant worker shows a message written on his palm at the Libyan and Tunisian border crossing of Ras Jdir after fleeing unrest in Libya March 3, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

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RAS JDIR, Tunisia (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 laborers, 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.

At Djerba airport, long queues built up outside the terminal building 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.

President Barack Obama said U.S. military and civilian aircraft would help move Egyptians stranded at the border.

"The total number of people who have crossed so far, from February 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."

SHORT QUEUES ON LIBYAN SIDE

On the Libyan side, foreign journalists were driven to Ras Judr on an organized trip from Tripoli designed to show the border was uncongested and managed efficiently.

A steady trickle of refugees crossed into Tunisia, and the scene was orderly and quiet, with queuing time into Tunisia very short. In 30 minutes, just over 100 people crossed.

Refugees waiting to cross were from Eritrea, Sudan, Bangladesh and Vietnam. They were mainly male construction workers, hiding their faces from gusts of sandy wind. Some lugged suitcases, others carried bags on their heads.

The crossing was manned by police and border officials, who checked documents. Several green flags flapped in the wind.

As journalists started interviewing those queuing to cross, one Libyan border official supervising the process kept repeating "no problem, no problem" while smiling.

"I am happy I am going home. We are all very tired. I was very scared," said Antoine Nguyen, part of a group of Vietnamese construction workers traveling together.

Small towns and villages leading to the border seemed deserted -- with shops closed and few people outside.

The road from Tripoli was heavily fortified with a long string of check points. But behind the facade of government control signs of resistance were apparent. Buildings in some towns were torched and anti-Gaddafi graffiti covered some house fronts and walls.

Yet most villages and towns flew green flags and pedestrians shouted "God Muammar Libya united" as the government organized convoy drove past.

IMPROMPTU SOCCER MATCH

With the flow of refugees dwindling to a trickle, it was

not clear if this meant all those who wanted out had now left, or if there were still some stuck in parts of Libya.

On the Tunisian side of the border, several hundred Vietnamese construction workers waited quietly inside the border compound for their transport.

"We are more than 10,000 Vietnamese working in Libya mainly in construction," said one 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 buses 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." At a tent camp set up by the UNHCR, refugees staged an impromptu Ghana vs. Nigeria soccer match, with spectators shielding their faces from the sand whipped up by the wind.

But the atmosphere was still volatile.

A mob of Egyptians, who have protested angrily that Cairo had 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.

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

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

(Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina, editing by Myra MacDonald)

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