- Associated Press - Friday, February 25, 2011

VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — After three tense days stuck in port, a ferry carrying Americans and other foreigners finally left the Libyan capital on Friday despite choppy seas that stranded thousands of Chinese workers back on land.

The Maria Dolores ferry left Tripoli’s As-shahab port and arrived in Valetta, Malta, after an eight-hour trip. Its passengers, at least 167 U.S. citizens and 118 other foreigners, have been aboard the catamaran since Wednesday in their quest to escape Libya’s escalating turmoil, but high seas prevented the ferry from leaving.

“More than 300 passengers are on board the U.S.-chartered ferry from Libya to Malta,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a tweet. “Additional passengers were added before departure.”

The Valletta Harbor was full of EU warships from France, Germany, Britain and Malta. The port is known for its cruise ships, and tourists were busy snapping photos of the warships, while air forces from all around the EU, including Germany, Ireland, Austria and Britain, are holding ground in Malta.

Some of the forces are believed to have been brought in to assist with a possible evacuation of citizens or other European stranded in Libya.

Tens of thousands of foreigners are trying to flee Libya, with Turks and Chinese climbing aboard ships by the thousands. Europeans are mostly boarding evacuation flights while North Africans have been racing to border crossings in overcrowded vans. A U.S. government-chartered aircraft was expected to leave from the Mitiga Air Field near downtown Tripoli for Istanbul later in the day.

China dispatched a navy ship to support the evacuation of its citizens. An estimated 30,000 Chinese live in Libya, working on dams, roads and other infrastructure projects. Most are now seeking to flee the country where fighting between rebels and Libyan militiamen loyal to Moammar Gadhafi has killed hundreds. Chinese state media reported Friday that about 12,000 Chinese nationals have so far been evacuated from Libya.

The bad weather forced Greece to suspend the evacuation of thousands of Chinese to the island of Crete on Friday, but about 6,000 Chinese were expected there Saturday.

China on Friday also evacuated more than 450 citizens by plane and bus — nearly half of whom were employees of Sinohydro, a state-owned company involved in construction, engineering, investment and real estate.

Gong Xuefei, a Sinohydro employee based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, told the official Xinhua News Agency that the evacuees first took buses to the border with Egypt, then traveled to Cairo, from where they flew home to China.

“The whole journey lasted more than 30 hours. It was exhausting,” he said.

India says it is sending two flights a day starting Saturday to evacuate some of the 18,000 Indians in Libya, as well as sending ships.

Two Italian military ships are off the Libyan coasts, near the city of Misrata, but rough seas are preventing the evacuation of some 150 Italian workers. Two Turkish ships on their way to Libya were also waiting for calmer seas.

Italy was also in touch with Libyan government authorities over a group of 150 employees of an Italian company who were stranded at the border with Tunisia over apparent lack of proper authorization to leave the country, the Foreign Ministry in Rome said. The group includes 10 Italians, the ministry said, while the ANSA news agency reported that Chinese and Thai workers were also part of the group.

“The situation in Libya is getting worse. We are not talking about chaos anymore, but really about a civil war,” Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki said on TVN24. “Most of the country is in the hands of rebels and they lack centralized power. That’s why it’s so dangerous. Gangs are on the prowl in many places.”

Poland appealed to its 400 citizens in Libya to leave as quickly as possible, saying the window of opportunity was narrowing, but many were Polish women married to Libyans who do not want to leave.

“We firmly advise that they return,” Mr. Bosacki said. “If someone wants to leave they should do so as quickly as possible.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron issued a similar call, adding his government was doing “everything it can” to get British nationals out.

The British naval ship HMS Cumberland sailed from Benghazi on Thursday for Malta with 207 evacuees. The trip usually takes at least 15 hours but was expected to take hours longer because of rough seas. Cameron said a second warship — HMS York — was being sent to waters close to Libya to help with rescue missions.

“I would say that people do need to leave now and that is the message that I give very strongly to British citizens in Libya,” Mr. Cameron said. “For those in the desert, we will do everything we can and we are active on that right now to help get you out.”

Britain, meanwhile, denied a report it had paid bribes to Libyan officials to help facilitate evacuation flights. A Foreign Office spokesman, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with policy, said “paying charges levied by the authorities at a foreign airport is not bribery.”

Sam Dewhirst of Leeds, England, however, said he believed the exit of British people might have been eased.

“I think our people probably smoothed the way with a few bribes to get us in to get us preferential treatment, which they should have done days ago,” Mr. Dewhirst said in Malta.

Greece had to overcome serious hurdles to obtain landing clearance to evacuate 230 Greeks from Libya to Athens early Friday.

“It was total chaos on every level, and quite troubling for the people involved. But we got our people out,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitris Dollis, who traveled to Libya to coordinate the effort. “It took us three days just to get clearance to land [in Tripoli and two regional airports]. It’s difficult to get permission when no one is running the country.”

Turkey also faced severe problems in obtaining Libyan landing permits, but it was able to launch flights between Tripoli and the southern airport of Dalaman. Four Turkish military cargo planes brought more than 400 Turks home from Tripoli.

About 10,000 Turkish citizens have been evacuated so far, President Abdullah Gul said Friday. Turkey has up to 30,000 citizens working in Libya, most on construction projects.

“We have asked companies who are not facing an imminent danger not to evacuate their workers from Libya,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told ATV television. “But if they are in danger, then we will arrange transfer for them to airports or ports and take them.”

Selcan Hacaoglu reported from Ankara, Turkey. Other writers around the world contributed to this report.

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