Hundreds airlifted from Tunisia in mass evacuation

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A major European operation was under way Thursday to airlift out of Tunisia thousands of people, most of them Egyptian workers, stranded at the border after fleeing the bloodshed in Libya.

The first French plane involved in the mass evacuation took off from the Djerba airport mid-afternoon, carrying 168 Egyptians to Cairo, following airlifts by British crews that took hundreds out overnight, officials said.

More French and British flights were planned Thursday with extra aircraft due, including from Spain, and ships from France, Germany and Italy also expected in the coming days.

They want to clear out a gridlock after about 90,000 people poured across the border to escape Libya, many of them not moving on and thousands more expected amid warnings of a humanitarian crisis and risk of epidemics.

The refugees started arriving after protests started against Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi on February 15, unleashing a violent crackdown.

About 20,000 were in and around Tunisia's main border at Ras Jedir by late Wednesday, said Colonel Malik Mihoub from Tunisian civil security.

Most of the thousands stuck at the border were male foreign migrant workers, with 85 percent originating from Egypt, while the others were from as far afield as Bangladesh, China and Vietnam, the UN has said.

More than 7,500 people from 21 countries had arrived through Ras Jedir on Wednesday alone, said UN official Amor Nekhili. More than 5,000 were from Bangladesh with Libyans, Egyptians and Vietnamese also present.

Thousands of people were bussed to Djerba and the port of Zarzis early Thursday ahead of their trips home, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.

"We have 2,000 or 3,000 people who are waiting at the airport but in total there are without doubt 50,000 people, essentially Egyptians, who are waiting in the region to be evacuated," airport director Zouher Badreddine told AFP.

Colonel Mohammed Essoussi, commander of a military camp accommodating about 15,000 near Ras Jedir, told AFP: "We're going to try to keep a balance by moving on 5,000 to 6,000 people a day and taking in 5,000 to 6,000 new refugees a day."

Britain had evacuated over 700 Egyptians from Djerba to Cairo by early Thursday, using commercial charter flights, a government official said.

France would operate six flights on Thursday, with flights also planned to move out a total of 5,000 over the next four days, its government spokesman said.

France was also sending the second-largest warship in its fleet, the amphibious assault ship Mistral, to Zarzis.

The International Organization for Migration said it would put on nine flights Thursday with the help of the British government and United Nations, and expected to transport 1,700 people from Djerba to Cairo.

Germany pledged three ships to evacuate some 4,000 migrants while Spain sent a plane to carry out three daily flights to take about 4,000 people over the next week, officials said.

One of those making the trip Thursday was Ahmadi Bakar, 27, who arrived in Tunisia four days ago with only a plastic bag, having been unable to catch a flight out of Tripoli.

"I am happy, I am going to see my family in Egypt," he said. "Libyan soldiers took everything from me, my phone and my money."

Tens of thousands of foreign nationals have already been evacuated by their government from Libya after the start of the uprising, which follows ones that toppled the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt.

The Djerba airport had received 250 flights since Friday last week to take out 35,000 people, the airport director said.

The European Union announced meanwhile it would earmark 30 million euros in aid to cope with the refugee crisis.

© 2011 AFP

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