Thursday, March 3, 2011

Libya Holds Dutch Soldiers as Refugees Flee to Borders

Egyptians sit next to their belongings as they wait for transportation near the Libyan and Tunisian border crossing of Ras Jdir after fleeing unrest in Libya, February 28, 2011

The Dutch Defense Ministry says three of its marines are being held in Libya, after being captured while taking part in an operation to help evacuate some of the tens of thousands of people fleeing the country.

Officials said Thursday "intensive" negotiations are underway to free the soldiers, who were captured Sunday by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

A handful of Western nations, along with Egypt, have launched emergency airlifts and sent ships to handle the chaotic exodus of migrant workers fleeing the country.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said Wednesday that nearly half the estimated 180,000 people fleeing Libya in recent days have sought refuge in Tunisia, far more than can be accommodated, let alone flown home. Another 77,000 have crossed east into Egypt while 30,000 more are still inside Libya, at the border, trying to get into Tunisia.

The Ras Ajdir crossing on the Libyan-Tunisian border has become the center of the escalating situation. UNHCR spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes said Wednesday "the capacity of the border area is bursting."

The most immediate need for the refugees is shelter. Despite the fast-growing tent city emerging a short drive from Ras Ajdir, thousands have been forced to spend the night outdoors. Most of the refugees are Egyptian and Tunisian, but large numbers of migrants are from poor Asian and African nations whose governments have been unable or unwilling to rescue them.

Britain and France Wednesday said they are sending planes to airlift stranded refugees - mostly Egyptians - from the Tunisian border. The French government said it is also sending a ship, and Italy said it would help set up a camp offering food and medical assistance.

The Egyptian military sent two ships to Tunisia to bring back stranded Egyptians who fled the chaos. Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Abdel-Hakam said more than 103,000 Egyptians have returned from Libya either by air or by land since the political situation there deteriorated.

In Brussels, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso announced that the EU will triple its aid for refugees from Libya's turmoil to about $13.8 million. U.S. Ambassador Betty King in Geneva said the United States is giving $12 million to help with evacuations.

The crisis prompted UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration to sound urgent appeals to the international community to help with massive evacuation efforts for the foreigners stuck at Libya's borders.

They include Bangladeshis, Vietnamese, Thais, Koreans, Malians, Ghanaians and Sudanese who went to Libya seeking work. The IOM's Mathieu Luciano said some had their passports confiscated by their employers and lacked proper travel documents. Most did not have enough money for the trip home.

The UNHCR and IOM's joint humanitarian evacuation staffs met in Geneva Wednesday to discuss logistics. The agencies are asking governments to supply planes, boats and expert personnel.

VOA

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