European states, US evacuating thousands from Libya

Several European countries including France, Germany and Spain began concerted efforts Thursday to shuttle thousands of migrants from Libya to Tunisia by air, including Egyptian workers.

On Thursday, U.S. President Barak Obama also approved US participation in the air bridge.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) started on Thursday to evacuate around 5500 migrants from the port city of Benghazi, the stronghold of the Libyan opposition. A French medical team including 20 doctors and nurses arrived at Garba airport in Southern Tunisia Thursday morning.  IOM aims to evacuate around 5000 Egyptians by air and sea.

As unrest grips the country and Muammar al-Qhadafi clings to power, he has vowed to arm Libyan tribes to confront the revolution.

According to IOM, “priority is being given to about 200 particularly vulnerable migrants, mostly women, children and those in need of medical assistance.” More than 172,000 have left Libya through Tunisia, Egypt and Niger, according to IOM.

IOM dedicated large cargo planes to fly to Cairo. A French medical team was on board the two planes that made two round trips to Cairo yesterday. The planes are expected to make the same number of trips on Friday and Saturday.

The first flight transported 168 Egyptians refugees, who had arrived at the Tunisian-Egyptian border.

At the same time, “Mistral” French helicopters are expected to arrive at Garba airport on Saturday to transport 800 Egyptians. The trip to Cairo will take three days.

Hundreds of Egyptians crossed the Tunisian-Libyan borders on dozens of busses. According to AFP, they are heading to Garba and the port of Guirguis.

A United Nations official in Tunisia said that 90,000 people had crossed the Tunisian-Libyan border since 20 February, and more than 7500 had crossed the border on Wednesday alone.

German Minister of Foreign Affairs Guido Westerwelle announced that Germany would send three naval ships to transport 4,000 refugees, most of whom are Egyptians, to Egypt. Spainrented a plane carrying humanitarian assistance to transport Egyptian refugees.

UNICEF mobilized employees and relief supplies to Libya’s western and eastern borders, amid rising fears regarding the influx of returning migrant workers to Tunisia.

UNICEF Head of Emergency Operations Louis George Arsino arrived in Tunisia Wednesday, according to a press release. Arsino is to meet with government authorities, as well as representatives from the UN and the International Red Cross to discuss the humanitarian needs as a result of the violence and unrest in Libya.

Arsino also met with some who fled Libya in Ras Gadir on the Tunisian border. He is also meeting with relief officials and local authorities to discuss the needs of those who are currently at the border.

UNICEF-sponsored flights transporting more than 60 tons of relief supplies are expected to arrive in neighboring countries within the next few days. Priority has been given to cleaning supplies, food, and psychological and social relief materials.

Reports indicate that the number of families that have crossed the Tunisian border has been relatively low so far. UNICEF is concerned that women and children in Libya have severely suffered as a result of the disturbances.

The organization issued an “immediate needs document” that calls for raising $2.7 million to meet the urgent needs of women and children. This document will be integrated into the joint urgent call to be issued by various organizations within the next few days.

UNICEF is also working to expand the reach of its employees by mobilizing them at the Tunisian and Egyptian borders to provide services to evacuees.

Hussein Massoud, president of Egyptair, said that the company operated 36 flights on Thursday to return Egyptians fleeing from Libya–and those who had arrived in Tunisia–to Egpyt. Egyptair is continuing its regular domestic and international flights.

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