British and German military planes have swooped into Libya's desert, rescuing hundreds of oil workers and civilians stranded at remote sites, as thousands of other foreigners are still stuck in Tripoli by bad weather and red tape.
The secret military missions signal the readiness of Western nations to disregard Libya's territorial integrity when it comes to the safety of their citizens.
Three British Royal Air Force C-130 and C-130J Hercules aircraft plucked 150 stranded civilians from multiple locations in the eastern Libyan desert before flying them to Malta on February 27, the British Defence Ministry has said in a statement. One of the Hercules aircraft appeared to have suffered minor damage from small arms fire, according to British Defence Secretary Liam Fox. The rescue follows a similar secret commando raid on February 26 by Special Forces, that included the famed SAS, that got another 150 oil workers from the desert. Separately, Germany said its air force had evacuated 132 people, also from the desert, during a secret mission on February 26.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on February 27 that two German military planes landed on a private runway belonging to the Wintershall AG company, evacuating 22 Germans and 112 others and flying them to the Greek island of Crete.
Another 18 German citizens were rescued by the British military in a separate military operation on February 26 that targeted remote oil installations in the Libyan desert, Westerwelle said. He said around 100 other German citizens are still in Libya and the government was trying to get them out as quickly as possible.
“I want to thank the members of the Germany military for their brave mission,” Westerwelle said.
German military missions abroad need approval by Parliament, and Westerwelle said he had spoken to all party leaders in Parliament on February 25 to tell them about the upcoming military mission. He said the coalition government led by Chancellor Angela Merkel had evaluated the situation in Libya as “very dangerous” and therefore ordered an immediate evacuation by the air force.
The German foreign ministry refused to name the exact location of the company and the site where the evacuation took place.
The head of Wintershall, Rainer Seele, thanked the government.
“We are all relieved and grateful,” he was quoted as saying by the DAPD news agency.
Prior to their secret missions in Libya, the British government had been embarrassed by earlier botched attempts to rescue its citizens stranded by the uprising in this North African nation. Its first rescue flight broke down and became stuck on a London runway on February 23.
But on February 27, newspapers could not gush enough about the “daring and dramatic” military operation by two RAF Hercules planes that brought stranded citizens to Malta.
“SAS swoops in dramatic Libya rescue,” the Sunday Telegraph headline read, in reference to the storied Special Air Service.
The mission was risky because Britain sent the planes in without obtaining prior Libyan permission, Foreign Secretary William Hague said.
One evacuee said his military plane was supposed to carry around 65 people out of Libya, but quickly grew to double that.
“It was very cramped but we were just glad to be out of there,” Patrick Eyles, a 43-year-old Briton, said at Malta International Airport.
As thousands finally made it to safety on the Greek island of Crete, two ships trying to ferry foreigners out of Libya were still struggling to leave Tripoli, delayed by officialdom and rough seas. A Russian-chartered ferry arrived at a Libyan port further east to pick up more than 1,000 people.
The U.K. frigate HMS Cumberland also returned to the eastern Libyan port of Benghazi from Malta to evacuate more people.
Lt. Cmdr. James Farrant of the ship said they were expecting 250 to 400 evacuees. Because of adverse weather conditions and rough seas the first trip to Malta lasted nearly two days, he said.
One of those waiting to board the ship was oil company worker Mike Broadbent, who together with other colleagues made a six-hour trip from a southern oil field after realising that no help was coming.
“We did a high speed drive across the desert, foot down, fingers crossed,” said Broadbent, who works for Zueitina Oil Company.
Plight of foreigners
Meanwhile, thousands of Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Somalis, Ethiopians and others have spilled out of a row of sea port side shelters and are facing strong winds and torrential rain. These are some of the foreigner workers whose governments have not organised evacuation for them. Many work for Chinese and Turkish construction firms.
On Crete, three more ships arrived from the eastern Libyan port of Benghazi early on February 27 carrying about 4,200 passengers, mostly Chinese but also 750 Bangladeshis and 200 Vietnamese, authorities said. Air China planned four flights on February 27 from Crete, carrying about 1,200 Chinese back to their homeland.
Another ferry from Benghazi with 2,000 more Chinese was expected to reach Crete on February 28 night, shipping agents said.
The sheer numbers of foreigners leaving Libya has been staggering. At least 20,000 Chinese, 15,000 Turks and 1,400 Italians had been evacuated, most working in the construction and oil industries. Further, some 22,000 people have fled across the border to Tunisia and another 15,000 have crossed into Egypt, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council.
Italy's San Giorgio military ship arrived in Sicily on February 27, carrying about 250 people, half of them Italian.
“Having come back to Italy is a miracle to us, we couldn't wait to get back,” Francesco Baldassarre, an Italian evacuated with his father Gino, told the ANSA news agency.
One cruise ship carried some 1,750 evacuees, mostly from Vietnam and Thailand, from Libya to Malta early on February 27, and another ship reached the Athens port of Piraeus carrying 390 evacuees, chiefly Brazilians, Portuguese and British.
In Tripoli, Henri Saliba, managing director of Virtu Ferries, said the ferry San Gwann was accepting anyone and was almost at capacity with more than 400 passengers. The Maria Dolores ferry has been chartered by a private company and has some 90 passengers on board.
They started taking passengers on February 26 evening but Libyan police only let people board in a trickle. Then bad weather on February 27 morning prevented their departure. Saliba said the ferries should arrive in Valletta, Malta, soon.
He said conditions at Tripoli's port were safe and calm.
The Interfax news agency, citing Russia's Emergencies Ministry, said the St. Stephan ferry had docked in the central Libyan port of Ras Lanuf, where it was taking aboard 1,126 evacuees, including 124 Russians.
Two Turkish frigates evacuating more than 1,700 people were expected to arrive in Turkey's Mediterranean port of Marmaris soon. Four other Turkish civilian ships, escorted by the Turkish navy, were also on their way to evacuate more people from three Libyan ports, Tripoli, Misrata and Ras Lanuf.
Turkey had up to 30,000 citizens mostly working in construction projects in Libya before the trouble began. It was not clear how many more needed to be evacuated.
A plane carrying 185 evacuees also landed on February 27 at Boryspil Airport in Kiev.