Libya Turmoil Triggers Evacuation Scramble

NEW DELHI

Governments around the world struggled on Wednesday to evacuate nationals from violence-hit Libya, with Asian countries facing a “mammoth” task of rescuing more than 150,000 low-paid workers.

Fears of a full-scale civil war in the North African state saw countries from Canada to China scramble to charter ferries and planes to secure their citizens’ safety despite poor communication links and growing violence.

The logistical challenges were especially acute for Asian countries with tens of thousands of migrants trapped in Libya.

The majority of Asian expatriates are low-paid contract workers, with 60,000 Bangladeshis, 30,000 Filipinos, 23,000 Thais and 18,000 Indians among those living under the tottering regime of Moamer Kadhafi.

“This is going to be quite a mammoth operation,” India’s foreign secretary Nirupama Rao told reporters.

Of the 18,000 Indians in Libya, about 3,000 are reported to be in the violence-hit city of Benghazi working in automobile companies and hospitals.

China arranged to evacuate half its 30,000 citizens on four ferries chartered from Greece which were expected to reach the Libyan coast by Wednesday night.

At the same time, China’s State Council decided to deploy chartered civil aircraft, nearby cargo ships and even Chinese fishing vessels “carrying needed living and medical supplies”, the foreign ministry said.

Hanoi said it was monitoring conditions for 10,000 Vietnamese in the country, while Nepalese officials were looking at overland routes to Egypt for about 3,000 citizens.

Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay, whose country relies heavily on remittances from around nine million overseas workers, was to fly to the Middle East Friday to review emergency plans for Filipinos in the region.

Manila has said it will buy plane tickets for its citizens in Libya who wish to flee.

Migrante International, a support group for overseas Filipino workers, said Filipinos had been abandoned in workers’ camps in Libya to fend for themselves.

The Thai embassy in Tripoli has contacted employers and advised Thais to be ready for evacuation, possibly using other countries’ ships to ferry them to Malta, the labour ministry in Bangkok said.

“We plan to use ships to evacuate Thai workers from Libya, but as of now nothing could be done as the situation is extremely dangerous,” said ministry spokesman Sutham Nateetong.

Sri Lanka said it had contacted the International Organisation on Migration (IOM) seeking help for at least 1,200 citizens.

“We don’t have aircraft to bring them back, so we asked the IOM,” Sri Lanka’s deputy external affairs minister Neomal Perera said.

Malta was also the planned destination of a US-chartered ferry that was due to start picking up American citizens from a designated port in Tripoli.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed that the safety of US nationals inside Libya was “our highest priority.”

Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said Ottawa was negotiating landing rights in order to fly more than 300 Canadians from Tripoli to European destinations starting on Thursday.

In the meantime, he said Canada was working with allies France, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand to secure seats for its citizens on other flights.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said it would provide “extra evacuation capacity”, including by sea, “in the next hours, days,” to help bring out an estimated 10,000 stranded Europeans.

Some evacuations had already begun with two planes carrying around 500 French nationals arriving in Paris early on Wednesday. The returnees spoke of thousands of foreigners awaiting evacuation from Tripoli’s packed airport.

And a Russian aircraft landed in Moscow with 118 nationals — the first of more than 500 Russian railroad and oil workers from Libya.

Russia’s emergency ministry said it planned to send a total of four planes to Tripoli as well as a rescue raft to the Libyan port city of Ras Lanuf, which is home to an oil refinery.

Bulgaria used two planes to evacuate more than 200 people, including a sizeable number of Croats, Serbs and Macedonians along with 111 Bulgarians.

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