* Egyptians in Benghazi must travel by land to Egypt
* Tripoli airport functions, permission for flights pending
CAIRO, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Runways at Libya’s Benghazi airport have been destroyed in the violence that has gripped the country and passenger planes cannot land there, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said on Tuesday. Libyan security has cracked down on anti-government protesters and fighting has spread to the capital Tripoli after erupting in Libya’s oil-producing east last week with no signs of Leader Muammar Gaddafi stepping down after 41 years in power.
Egypt’s foreign minister told his nationals in Libya to, if possible, remain in their houses and secure themselves with enough food and water and to stay off the streets.
Up to 1.5 million Egyptian nationals live in Libya. Egypt has been unable to evacuate citizens by air from the second city of Benghazi. It still awaits permission from Libyan air traffic authorities to land its planes at Tripoli airport.
“Regarding east of Libya, the Benghazi airport runways have been destroyed. It is not possible for Egyptair flights or any other flights to land in that airport,” Aboul Gheit told reporters at a news conference.
He called on Egyptian nationals living in Libya to stay off the streets but said those determined to leave Benghazi must travel by land in groups to reach the Egyptian border.
“If Egyptians need to leave, and I always advise to stay home, then they would have to travel to Egyptian borders by land some 500 km in proximity to danger. Such trips must be in groups and in busses,” Aboul Gheit said.
Armed forces at the border have set up hospitals, tents and transportation to move arriving nationals to Marsa Matrouh, a northern coastal area, the minister said.
He added that Egypt’s foreign ministry has arranged to send four Egyptair flights daily to evacuate citizens but permission for flights to land in Tripoli is pending.
“Regarding west of Libya and the Tripoli airport, we must get certification to land flights. The reaction of the Libyan side is unclear,” Aboul Gheit said. “This is a big (rescue) operation very similar to the one in Iraq in 1991,” Aboul Gheit said in reference to Egypt’s efforts to evacuate its nationals during the Iraq war.
Unrest which deposed the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt have shaken the Arab world and inspired protests across the Middle East and North Africa, threatening the grip of long-entrenched autocratic leaders.