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.
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.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has urged his supporters to strike back against the Libyan protesters, escalating a crackdown that has led to widespread shooting in the streets. Nearly 300 people have been killed in the nationwide wave of anti-government protests.
A Bulgaria Air plane carrying 110 Bulgarians and six Romanians from Tripoli — mostly medical and construction workers — arrived in Sofia. Some passengers said they had heard gunfights.
“I saw horror,” a nurse who gave only her first name, Polly, told reporters.
“We decided to return because the situation is unstable. When we left Tripoli, there was some kind of euphoria; everybody was celebrating some kind of victory,” engineer Natalia Vakova said. “But that’s Libya — absolutely unpredictable.”
The first planeload of Russians to be evacuated landed in Moscow, bringing 118 Russians. Three more planes are expected later Wednesday. A ship also was setting sail for Ras Lanuf, the site of Libya‘s largest refinery and port, to evacuate up to 1,000 Russians, Turks, Serbs and Montenegrins there.
Two French military planes evacuated 335 French people and 56 foreigners to Paris from Libya, and a third plane was en route from France to evacuate French tourists.
Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Christoph Prommersberger said a Dutch KDC-10 air force transport plane left Tripoli late Tuesday with 32 Dutch evacuees and 50 other nationalities.
“What we hear from our people is it is chaotic but functioning,” he said of the Tripoli airport.
British Airways and Emirates, the Middle East’s largest airline, canceled flights to Tripoli on Tuesday. Unease over the safety of U.S. citizens intensified after failed attempts to get some out on Monday and Tuesday.
Britain is redeploying a warship, the HMS Cumberland, off the Libyan coast for a possible seaborne evacuation of British citizens.
Italians continued to take Alitalia flights from Tripoli home, and a few hundred already have returned to Italy. An Italian air force plane landed in Libya on Wednesday to evacuate more people.
Separately, two Italian naval vessels were headed to eastern Libyan ports to rescue citizens from Benghazi and other cities where airports are damaged. Italian citizens based in Misurata, Libya, said their private company was arranging evacuation by sea because the airfield at that coastal city was damaged by the protests.
About 450 Romanians were in the process of being evacuated, but some lived far away from Tripoli, and it was not clear how they would get to the Libyan capital. Germany also was trying to evacuate about 150 Germans still there.
Associated Press writers across Europe contributed to this report.
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