* Ships to arrive on Tuesday to evacuate thousands
* Prime Minister Erdogan says spoke to Gaddafi twice
* Workers stranded in soccer stadium bussed to Benghazi port
* Turkey has projects in Libya worth more than $15 bln
By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL, Feb 22 Thousands of Turkish workers
stranded in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi began boarding
buses for the port on Tuesday to wait for ships sent to rescue
them from violence engulfing the North African country.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has vowed defiance in the face
of mounting revolt, making a fleeting television appearance to
scorn protesters and deny he had fled the country. [nL3E7DM0K1]
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said he had spoken to Gaddafi
twice in an effort to secure safe passage out for Turkish
citizens. Officials say there are a total 25,000 Turks in Libya,
many of them working for construction firms.
The Turkish workers in Benghazi, thousands of whom took
refuge overnight in a soccer stadium overnight, were being taken
to a nearby port where the first two of five ships being sent
from Turkey were expected to arrive on Tuesday evening.
Some of those kept in the stadium fell ill overnight, but
were given blankets and bread and were not treated badly, said
Burcu Begde, employee of a construction firm building a
university in Benghazi, who has just returned to Turkey.
"Our colleagues are on the bus heading to the port," she
told Reuters after speaking with her colleagues in Benghazi on
Her colleagues reported hearing firefights and explosions
during their stay in the stadium, with youths striding around
with Kalashnikov rifles.
Two ferries set sail on Monday from Istanbul and were
expected to reach Benghazi on Tuesday afternoon to begin the
"We hope these ships will arrive this afternoon and will
evacuate 3,000 people in the first stage," Foreign Minister
Ahmet Davutoglu told a news conference in Ankara. He said there
were nearly 5,000 Turks in the Benghazi area.
Turkey's navy has also sent a transport ship capable of
carrying 1,500 passengers from the eastern Mediterranean port of
Mersin, escorted by two frigates and a refuelling ship and
stocked with food for 6,000 people, the prime minister's office
NTV website reported that the ship was due to reach the
Libyan capital Tripoli on Thursday morning.
Some Turks managed to catch a flight home from Benghazi on
Sunday night, before violence spread to the airport.
Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said on Tuesday
that the airports runways had been destroyed, and passenger
planes could no longer land there.
SHIPS EN ROUTE
State-run Anatolian news agency said another ship was being
sent to Libya on Tuesday afternoon and a fifth vessel was being
prepared for departure on Wednesday. Each of these ships can
carry 800 passengers.
A convoy of buses was also taking more people out by road to
Three flights were scheduled to arrive in Istanbul from the
Libyan capital Tripoli on Tuesday. Davutoglu said it had become
impossible to land at Benghazi airport, which was out of action.
Around 1,000 Turks have so far been evacuated by plane.
Turkey has made forging closer diplomatic and economic ties
with the Middle East and the Arab world a priority, banking on
prosperity eventually bringing stability to the volatile region.
Turkish companies, mostly construction firms, have projects
worth more than $15 billion in Libya and trade volume between
them was about $2.4 billion last year.
Libya was part of the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century
until it was conquered by Italy in 1912.