Pro-regime forces man Libyan border with Tunisia: UNHCR

4th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Heavily armed pro-regime forces are manning the Libyan side of the border with Tunisia, and fewer than 2,000 people crossed the frontier on Thursday, the UN refugees agency said Friday.

"On previous days, between 10,000 and 15,000 fled every day into Tunisia. Yesterday less than 2,000 made it across the border," said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

"UNHCR is very concerned that the security situation in Libya may be preventing people crossing the border," she added.

"The border on the Libyan side of the border is now manned by heavily armed pro-government forces," said Fleming.

Those that did manage to cross the border told the UNHCR that "their mobile phones had been confiscated en route, along with cameras."

"Many of those who have crossed the border appear to be frightened and are unwilling to speak," said the spokeswoman.

"We believe that has implications -- that they may have been intimidated in some way," she added.

The current border arrangements and situation leading to the frontier appeared to be slowing the outflow from Libya into Tunisia.

"We're hearing reports... that the entire road was full of Kadhafi supported military, that there were checkpoints all along the way," she said.

UNHCR officials are planning to speak to as many people who made it across the border as possible, "to figure out why the numbers have dropped off so dramatically."

Four refugees who have just crossed the border Friday told AFP however that they had not witnessed any military presence and that there were only police.

When asked about the latest witness accounts, Fleming said that "the situation is constantly changing."

She believed that "if military control of the border and roads reduces, we anticipate that a huge exodus of people could resume."

Meanwhile, with the help of the international community, aid agencies have been able to ease congestion at the Tunisian side of the frontier.

"Thanks to a rapid response from the international community, significant progress has been made with the evacuation of Egyptians and other nationalities from Tunisia," said Fleming.

Nevertheless, another 12,500 people still needed evacuation, said the spokeswoman.

Over 10,000 of them are Bangladeshis, and the UNHCR said two flights were planned for them on Friday.

Meanwhile, in Libya's second largest city Benghazi, over 640 Bangladeshi migrants were taken by road Thursday to the Egyptian crossing in an evacuation operation by the International Organization for Migration.

"IOM will then organize for their return home to Bangladesh in the days to come," said Jemini Pandya, spokeswoman for the inter-governmental group.

Another 300 migrants, including 40 sub-Saharan Africans, will be evacuated in the same manner from Benghazi today.

Aid agencies have raised concerns about the plight of migrants from poorer countries, as their home countries may not have resources to evacuate them.

Bangladesh on Wednesday told tens of thousands of its nationals who are migrant workers in Libya to stay put, as Dhaka officials said they had no resources to send ships or planes to ferry them home.

© 2011 AFP

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