Thousands of foreigners flee 'chaotic' Libya

More than 3,000 Turks leave by ship, with 21 other countries asking Turkey to evacuate their citizens from strife-hit country, Russia, the Netherlands and Bulgaria flying in planes and Britain and Italy sending naval vessels.

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ANKARA // Turkey evacuated 3,000 citizens on two ships yesterday from the chaos of Libya's uprising but thousands of other foreigners are still stranded at Tripoli airport, struggling to get a flight home.

Several countries, Russia, Germany and Ukraine among them, sent more planes to help their citizens escape the turmoil engulfing the North African nation and the United States said Americans would be evacuated by ferry later yesterday to the Mediterranean island of Malta.

Kathleen Burnett, of Baltimore in the US state of Ohio, as she stepped off an Austrian Airlines flight from Tripoli to Vienna on Tuesday: "The airport was mobbed, you wouldn't believe the number of people. It was total chaos."

The Turkish commercial ships, which left from the eastern Libyan port of Benghazi, are being escorted by a navy frigate, the first of which was expected to reach Turkey's Mediterranean port of Marmaris around midnight. Turkey has also sent two more commercial ships to Libya.

Turkey has about 25,000 citizens and more than 200 companies involved in construction projects in Libya worth more than US$15 billion (Dh55bn). Some of the construction sites have come under attack by protesters. Turkey has now evacuated more than 5,000 citizens from Libya over three days, about 2,000 of them by plane, said the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu.

"We are carrying out the largest evacuation operation in our history," he said.

Turkey was still trying to reach all of its citizens in Libya and also received calls for help from many other countries. "So far, a total of 21 countries have asked Turkey to evacuate their citizens as well," Mr Davutoglu said.

One Turkish citizen has been killed in Tripoli, he said. Turkey is also considering diverting its ships from Libya to Tunisia for quicker evacuation.

"We will then bring them from Tunisia by planes," he said.

Mr Davutoglu stressed that Turkey is not leaving Libya and will send "food and medicine to Libyan brothers by ships".

Libya produces nearly two per cent of the world's oil and many oil companies are evacuating their expatriate workers and families.

The International Organisation for Migration said several Asian, African and one European government have requested its help to evacuate their citizens. Migrants were pouring into Libya's land borders with Egypt and Tunisia and the group was trying to help find accommodation for those already at the border, said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the Geneva-based organisation.

Ms Pandya said it was difficult to estimate how many migrants, many of them undocumented, would flee Libya, but "it will be thousands".

The first planeload of Russians to be evacuated from Libya landed in Moscow, bringing 118 Russians. Three more planes are expected to arrive later in the day. A ship was also setting sail for Ras Lanuf, the site of Libya's largest refinery and port, to evacuate up to 1,000 Russians, Turks, Serbs and Montenegrins.

A Bulgaria Air plane, carrying 110 Bulgarians and six Romanians from Tripoli, mostly medical and construction workers, arrived in Sofia.

"I saw horror," a nurse who gave only her first name, Polly, told reporters upon her arrival in Sofia.

Some passengers said they heard gunfights.

An engineer, Natalia Vakova, said: "We decided to return because the situation is unstable. When we left Tripoli there was some kind of euphoria, everybody was celebrating some kind of victory. But that's Libya - absolutely unpredictable."

British Airways and Emirates, the Middle East's largest airline, cancelled flights to Tripoli on Tuesday because of the violence.

The Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has urged his supporters to strike back against protesters, escalating a crackdown that has led to widespread shooting in the streets. Nearly 300 people have been killed in the nationwide wave of anti-government protests.

Unease over the safety of US citizens intensified after failed attempts to get some out on Monday and Tuesday.

Christoph Prommersberger, the Dutch foreign ministry spokesman, said a Dutch KDC-10 air force transport plane left Tripoli late on Tuesday with 32 Dutch evacuees and 50 other nationalities.

"What we hear from our people is, it is chaotic but functioning," he said of the Tripoli airport.

Britain is redeploying a warship, HMS Cumberland, off the Libyan coast for a possible sea-borne evacuation of British citizens.

The Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, meanwhile, said Italy will let British and Serbian evacuation flights land on Italian soil.

Italians continued to take Alitalia flights from Tripoli home, and a few hundred have already returned to Italy. An Italian air force plane landed in Libya yesterday to evacuate more people.

Separately, two Italian naval vessels are headed to eastern Libyan ports to get out citizens from Benghazi and other cities where airports are damaged. Italian citizens based in Misurata, Libya, said their private company was arranging evacuation by sea because the airfield at that coastal city has also been damaged.