Evacuation of thousands of Egyptians at Tunisia-Libya border under way

AFP , Thursday 3 Mar 2011

International operation under way to return home tens of thousands of migrants stranded after fleeing from Libya to Tunisia

Egyptian evacuees from Libya queue to board their flight back home at Djerba airport in Tunisia (Reuters)

The evacuation of thousands of people stranded at the Tunisian-Libyan border started Thursday with the transport of hundreds of Egyptians by bus to an airport and port.

The Eyptians, among around 20,000 people stranded around the main Ras Jedir border post and nearby Choucha after fleeing Libya, were being taken to the Djerba airport or the port of Zarzis ahead of their journeys home.

Long queues were lined up along the road beside a camp at Choucha, where the Tunisian army had taken in some 15,000 people, seven kilometres (four miles) from Ras Jedir.

"We're going to try to keep a balance by moving on 5,000 to 6,000 people a day and taking in 5,000 to 6,000 new refugees a day," camp commander and army doctor Colonel Mohammed Essoussi told AFP.

Border officials have said that about 86,500 people crossed over since 20 February, a few days after protests started against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. They including around 38,000 Egyptians.

About 20,000 people were stranded in the area late Wednesday.

A French medical team meanwhile arrived at the Djerba airport to begin operations to airlift out the refugees, an AFP reporter said.

The French operation expects to use three transport planes and a boat to ferry out about 5,000 Egyptians.

Six flights are expected to leave Djerba on Thursday, as well as on Friday and Saturday.

The UN refugees agency launched a joint urgent appeal with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) late Tuesday for a mass evacuation at the Tunisia-Libya border.

Following the appeal, Europe, the United States and Canada sent planes, ships and funds to help get the migrants home.

Most of the thousands massing at the border were male foreign migrant workers, with 85 per cent originating from Egypt, while the others were from as far afield as Bangladesh, China and Vietnam, the UN said.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has set up a huge transit camp for those who have already crossed over from Libya, but who are now stuck waiting for onward transportation.

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