ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Foreigners fled the turmoil in Libya by the thousands on Wednesday, climbing aboard ships, ferries and planes or fleeing in overloaded vans to the country’s borders with Egypt and Tunisia. Tripoli’s airport was overwhelmed with stranded people seeking a way out.
Two Turkish ships whisked 3,000 citizens away from the chaos engulfing the North African nation, and a 600-foot U.S.-chartered ferry arrived to evacuate Americans to the nearby Mediterranean island of Malta, a five-hour journey. Several countries — including Russia, Germany and Ukraine — sent more planes in to help their citizens escape an increasingly unstable situation.
“The airport was mobbed. You wouldn’t believe the number of people,” said Kathleen Burnett of Baltimore, Ohio, as she stepped off an Austrian Airlines flight from Tripoli to Vienna, Austria. “It was total chaos.”
Turkey was cranking up the largest evacuation in its history, seeking to protect some 25,000 citizens and more than 200 Turkish companies involved in construction projects in Libya worth more than $15 billion. Some of the construction sites have come under attack by protesters.
Two Turkish commercial ships left the eastern Libyan port of Benghazi on Wednesday escorted by a navy frigate, with the first one expected to reach Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Marmaris around midnight. Authorities began setting up a soup kitchen and a field hospital at Marmaris and arranged buses to transfer the evacuees. Turkey also has sent two more commercial ships to Libya.
“We are carrying out the largest evacuation operation in our history,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, adding that Turkey also was helping other nations. “So far, a total of 21 countries have asked Turkey to evacuate their citizens as well.”
Libya is one of the world’s biggest oil producers — producing nearly 2 percent of the world’s oil — and many oil companies were evacuating their expatriate workers and families.
China also was gearing up for a massive evacuation. A reported 30,000 or more Chinese workers are in Libya building railways and other infrastructure and providing oilfield services. Greece is making plans to help evacuate about 13,000 of them to Crete by ship.
China’s first chartered evacuation flight, staffed with relief officials and stocked with food and medicine, left for Libya on Wednesday.
Chinese media reports said a site run by China’s Huafeng Construction Co. Ltd. in eastern Libya was attacked by armed looters over the weekend who stole computers and other equipment and forced nearly 1,000 Chinese workers out of their dormitories.
The International Organization for Migration said several Asian, African and one European government requested its help in evacuating citizens.
The U.N. migration agency was trying to help find accommodation for those at the border, said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the Geneva-based organization, who said thousands of migrants were fleeing Libya.