- Associated Press - Thursday, February 24, 2011

IRAKLIO, Crete (AP) — Two ferries carrying 4,500 Chinese workers from strife-torn Libya arrived at the Mediterranean island of Crete on Thursday, despite rough seas that left hundreds of Americans stranded on a docked ferry in Tripoli.

Passengers smiled and waved from the decks of the Greek-flagged Hellenic Spirit, which sailed from Libya’s eastern port of Benghazi, although some others needed medical attention.

Up to 15,000 Chinese are expected to arrive by ferry on Crete and fly home on chartered flights in one of China’s largest foreign evacuations in recent times. China has more than 30,000 citizens in Libya working on construction and oil projects.

As tens of thousands of foreigners sought to flee the turmoil in Libya, Britain pondered whether to send in its military to evacuate oil workers stranded in remote sites by fierce fighting in the North African nation.

Those who made it out of Libya described a frightening scene — with bodies hanging from electricity poles in Benghazi and militia trucks loaded up with the dead. In the capital of Tripoli, witnesses said the airport was a madhouse, crammed with desperate people who stampeded any open door.

“The airport is just a zoo. There’s about 10,000 people there, all trying to get out,” Ewan Black of Great Britain told the BBC as he got off a flight at London’s Gatwick Airport. “It’s just absolutely manic; basically, it’s uncontrolled.”

Americans who eagerly climbed aboard the Maria Dolores ferry at Tripoli’s As-shahab port on Wednesday faced a long delay in their travel plans. Strong winds have been whipping up high waves in the Mediterranean Sea, and the 600-passenger catamaran ferry was not likely to leave for Malta until Friday at the earliest, ferry officials said.

“Citizens are safe on board. It will leave when the weather permits,” U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a tweet. The voyage takes up to eight hours.

A spokesman for the American Embassy said provisions are aboard the ferry, one of two now in Libya, which can evacuate a total of 1,000 people.

In London, the British government was holding an emergency meeting to decide whether the military needs to evacuate almost 200 U.K. oil workers and their colleagues from other countries. Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC radio the panel would discuss evacuation options with Liam Fox, secretary of state for defense.

Mr. Hague said he did not rule out the use of British special forces to rescue the 170 British workers marooned in desert camps away from Libya’s major cities.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, in Oman on a tour of the Middle East, issued an apology to British nationals furious over the country’s supposedly sluggish efforts to evacuate its citizens from Tripoli.

Turkey managed to evacuate more than 7,000 of its 25,000 citizens in Libya, mostly by two ships that arrived Thursday in the southern Turkish port of Marmaris, and said it would evacuate more foreigners from Libya.

Witnesses said Benghazi, the eastern city now controlled by anti-government protesters, has seen fierce fighting, looting and killings.

Ali Tumkaya, the human resources manager for Turkey’s Sembol company, which was building a university in Benghazi, said militias raided the Benghazi airport. He saw vans with more than 20 dead bodies, who Mr. Tumkaya said were paid soldiers from sub-Saharan Africa.

Another Turkish evacuee, Serdar Taskin, who worked for Mammar Arabia company in Benghazi, said he saw bodies hanging from electricity poles. He did not know if they were protesters or Gadhafi supporters.

George Suchomel, a Canadian from Collingwood, Ontario, who works for the German construction company Arcadis, said his company’s offices and lodgings were raided and cars and electronic equipment were looted.

Mr. Suchomel, who was evacuated by a Turkish ship, provided the Associated Press with a video which he said was given to him by militiamen in Benghazi to smuggle out. It showed the aftermath of a scene in which a military tank seems to have run over a red car with some people still trapped inside and others running around frantically and shouting.

People who managed to flee Tripoli by air described sheer chaos at the airport, with people shoving and climbing over one another to get on planes. Amateur video showed crowds of people jammed shoulder to shoulder, some appearing to be camped out.

“I lost all my luggage. It’s literally bodies climbing over bodies to get to the door,” Mr. Black said. “I was on my knees at one stage and so was my colleague, and it was actually one of the Libyan police who grabbed my arm when I showed him my passport and pulled me in, and I pulled the other guy in as well.”

In addition to its maritime effort, Greece sent three military transport planes to Libya on Thursday to bring home 300 citizens, most construction workers.

Libyan authorities, meanwhile, were making it difficult for airlines to obtain landing permits for charter flights into Tripoli. That, and other operational and safety problems, forced some airlines to halt their operations in Libya.

Austrian Airlines temporarily canceled its flights to and from Tripoli through at least Sunday. Italian carrier Alitalia, which has been one of the last commercial airlines flying out of chaos-wracked Libya, also said Thursday it was suspending its flights from Tripoli because of chaos and deteriorating security at the airports.

Several hundred of the 1,500 Italians in Libya already have left.

A plane carrying 125 Ukrainians and 38 foreigners from Libya landed at Kiev’s Boryspil Airport early Thursday. A Polish government plane that was supposed to carry 80 Poles back home arrived in Warsaw with only 15 Poles and several foreigners because many people could not make it to Tripoli’s airport.

Suzan Fraser reported from Marmaris, Turkey. AP writers across Europe contributed to this report.