Thousands fleeing Libya cause chaos at border

Tunisian border guards fire into the air as foreigners working in Libya try to escape through the border.

Afp/reuters March 01, 2011

LIBYA: Tunisian border guards fired into the air on Tuesday to try to control a crowd of people clamouring to get through a border crossing to escape the violence in neighbouring Libya.

Border guards were letting people, mostly foreigners who had been working in Libya, through the crossing at Ras Jdir but could not process them through immigration fast enough to keep up with the numbers arriving.

The crowd was pressed up against a concrete wall dividing the no man's land between the Libyan and Tunisian border posts.

At intervals, Tunisian border guards would open a blue metal gate to let a small group through.

But some people were throwing their bags over the wall and trying to climb over, prompting border guards first to hit them with sticks and then to fire repeatedly into the air.

A Reuters reporter saw at least three people being taken out of the crowd by medical teams from the Red Crescent after fainting in the crush of bodies, and volunteers threw bottles of water over the wall into the crowd.

"It looks like it's going to get worse ... They are going to break down the wall in the end," said Ayman Gharaibeh, an officer with the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

"We are trying to get the assistance of the other (Libyan) side to ease the pressure on the wall."

Tens of thousands of people, mostly migrant workers, have fled Libya since an uprising against the four-decade rule of Muammar Qaddafi led to a violent crackdown by his security forces.

Refugees’ Anger

There were chaotic scenes too on the Tunisian side of the border. Thousands of Egyptian refugees, who had made it across from Libya, asked angrily why their government was not arranging to have them repatriated.

"When are we going to be taken out of here? We cannot accept this," said one Egyptian at a tent camp about 5 km from the border. "Give me a camel. I will take a camel. I just want to go home."

Many of the refugees stranded at the border do not have the money to pay for their passage home. Some have been sleeping out in the open for several days in cold and wet conditions.

There had been reports that the Egyptian authorities were sending two ships to a nearby port to take them home but there was no sign of them on Tuesday.

The UNHCR extended its camp near the border overnight, erecting tents with a capacity to accommodate 10,000 people. The organisation was preparing to put in more tents to increase the camp's capacity to 20,000.

"There is growing tension," said Hovig Etyemezian, senior protection officer with the UNHCR. "But they (Tunisian border authorities) have not lost control yet."

"Water and sanitation is a major issue, toilets are our next big headache," Etyemezian said at the camp, where 500 white tents went up overnight, each big enough for 10 people.

A Tunisian army colonel said his forces were managing the flow of refugees through the border, but needed foreign governments to do more to transport their citizens home.

"We need the most rapid possible evacuation," said Colonel Mohamed Essoussi. "The major weaknesses are in transport, in air and maritime transport."

We must stop Qaddafi 'murdering' people: British PM

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Tuesday that the international community must not let Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi "murder" his own people.

"It's not acceptable that Colonel Qaddafi can be murdering his own people, using aeroplanes and helicopters, gunships and the like, and we have to plan now to make sure that if it happens we can do something to stop that," Cameron said in a joint press conference with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The prime minister said the need to protect Libyan civilians from attack from the regime was why he had asked his military chiefs to look into the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.

"It's right for us to plan and look at plans for a no-fly zone," he said.

"We should also be making contact, getting a greater understanding of the opposition forces that are now in Benghazi and in control of quite a lot of the country.

"We are trying to step up our contact with them so we can know them better and what their intentions are."

But he added: "I don't think we should go beyond that for now."

OIC against military intervention in Libya

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference said Tuesday that it was against any military intervention in Libya, while the United States and Europe weighed up the idea of a no-fly zone over the country.

"Allow me to underline our position against any possible military intervention on the situation in Libya," OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu told the UN Human Rights Council.

"To this end, all options should be utilised for the settlement of disputes through peaceful means and without resorting to the use of force," he added.

The United States on Monday positioned naval and air forces around Libya, where ongoing violent repressions by Muammar Qaddafi's regime has left at least 1,000 dead.

Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday that Washington was not planning any naval operations, she stressed that all options remained on the table.

Some Western countries are also weighing up the option of using NATO air power to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent the regime from aerial bombardment of its population.

Ihsanoglu said that the OIC remained "seized of the situation in Libya" and has sent two coordination missions to assess the humanitarian needs at Libya's borders with Tunisia and Egypt, where tens of thousands of people have fled.

The OIC chief highlighted that the situation in the Arab world reflected that the people in the region "aspire to democracy, good governance and human rights".

"This must be respected," said Ihsanoglu.

"The leadership in these countries and the international community must deal with the situation with patience, wisdom and forward looking vision," he added.


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