DJERBA, Tunisia – A major European operation was under way Thursday to airlift out of Tunisia thousands of people who fled the bloodshed in Libya as Washington also offered planes to repatriate Egyptian refugees.
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.
The goal is to clear out a gridlock after about 95,000 people, most of them Egyptian workers, 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 an uprising against Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi’s 41-year rule started on February 15, unleashing a violent crackdown.
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.
In Washington, President Barack Obama authorised the use of US military aircraft to move Egyptian refugees who have fled Libya to Tunisia.
Noting that tens of thousands of people were trying to escape the violence in Libya, Obama said, “I have, therefore, approved the use of US military aircraft to help move Egyptians who have fled to the Tunisian border to get back home to Egypt.”
He said he also authorised the chartering of additional civilian aircraft to help people from other countries find their way home.
He told a news conference that he had directed the US Agency for International Development to send teams to the Libyan border to help address the urgent needs of refugees.
The stepped-up international mobilisation came as a Tunisian minister slammed the slow pace of the refugee repatriation.
“The number of air and sea shuttles is inadequate in the light of the growing number of the refugees,” Mohamed Ennaceur, the country’s social affairs minister, told reporters in Tunis.
He called on other countries and on humanitarian organisations to “avoid a humanitarian crisis” at the border between the two countries.
He said that between February 20 and March 2 about 95,000 people crossed into Tunisia from Libya, 30,000 of them Tunisians.
Of the 65,000 others there were 41,000 Egyptians and of these 27,000 had already been repatriated, he said.
For the time being, Ennaceur said, “the situation is under control” adding that there were no problems with health or epidemics among the tens of thousands of displaced people in the south of the country.
About 20,000 refugees 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.
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 spawned by the Libya violence.