ANKARA, Turkey — Governments scrambled by air and sea to pick up their citizens stranded by Libya’s bloody unrest on Tuesday, with thousands of people crowding the airport and a stadium to await evacuation and Egyptians gathering at the border to escape the chaos.
“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 on Tuesday.
“It was total chaos. Everybody was being checked out by the police but everyone was very obedient.”
At least two airlines, British Airways and Emirates, the Middle East’s largest, said they were canceling flights to Tripoli, as reports spread that bodies of protesters littered the streets of neighborhoods in the capital.
Britain said it was redeploying a warship, the HMS Cumberland, off the Libyan coast in readiness for a possible sea-borne evacuation of British citizens stuck in the north African country. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his country was also seeking to send a charter flight to Libya but the plane had yet to receive the necessary permission to land.
Two civilian ferries from Turkey arrived in the hard-hit eastern city of Benghazi late Tuesday to evacuate about 3,000 Turkish citizens, the Anatolia news agency reported. The ferries were expected to set sail back for Turkey as soon as the evacuees had boarded. Turkey sent the ferries and another military vessel after the country was unable to get permission to land at the city’s airport.
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek said Turkish ferries could help evacuate up to 6,000 people per day, if Libyan authorities allow the vessels to dock at Benghazi.
Meanwhile, about 5,000 Egyptians have returned home from Libya by land and about 10,000 more are waiting to cross the Libya-Egypt border, an Egyptian security official said. Egypt says it will also send six commercial and two military planes to repatriate thousands more caught in the revolt against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.
Some people were still getting out on regularly scheduled flights, but many countries were sending planes to fetch their citizens, with Serbia, Russia, the Netherlands and France reporting they had permission to land in Tripoli, a process made more difficult by the uncertainty about who is in charge.
“The situation is very variable and our basic issue is who is in control of what in the country so that our landing and overflight requests are answered,” Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitris Dollis said.
Greek officials later said the country was ready to evacuate 15,000 Chinese nationals by transferring them by merchant ships to the Greek island of Crete.
Libya is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, and many oil companies were also evacuating their expat workers and their families.
Turkey has a huge presence in Libya, with about 25,000 citizens in the country and more than 200 Turkish companies involved in construction projects worth more than $15 billion. Some of the construction sites came under attack by protesters but no Turkish citizen has been harmed, authorities said.
Turkey has so far evacuated more than 2,000 of its citizens, the Foreign Ministry said. On Tuesday, a Turkish Airlines plane flew back about 250 Turks — who crossed into Egypt by land — from the Egyptian city of Alexandria.
One passenger told Turkey’s NTV television at Istanbul airport the journey between the Libyan city of Tobrus and the Egyptian border was “frightening because of the gangs armed with guns and machine guns who are roaming the streets.”
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said 10 other countries have also asked for help from Turkey to evacuate their citizens, though he did not identify them.
“Our priority is to evacuate our citizens. We call on Libyan authorities to be sensitive toward the safety of foreigners,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, urging the authorities not to use violence.
In Egypt, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit accused Gadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam of inciting violence against Egyptians by suggesting they joined the protests against his father.
An Egyptian security official said troops have beefed up their presence on the border with Libya and set up a field hospital there. He did not give details and spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to share such information.
Italians who returned to Rome from Tripoli on a regularly scheduled Alitalia flight said the situation in the Libyan capital appeared relatively calm Tuesday, but that they expected it would degenerate.
“There are no big troubles in Tripoli, we heard some shots and gunfights, nothing special, and above all we didn’t see any airplanes,” said Marco Albi as he arrived at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport, brandishing a poster of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
In addition to the continuing commercial Alitalia flights, Italy was prepared to mobilize four to five C-130 aircraft, navy ships and if necessary even military troops to help with any possible evacuation of Italians, Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said.
The Italian navy destroyer Franceso Mimbelli, which has a crew of 400 people and is based in Taranto, Sicily, has been mobilized but its itinerary wasn’t announced.
A Dutch air force transport plane landed in Tripoli to pick up about 100 Dutch citizens. It was expected to arrive back in The Netherlands on Tuesday night, but the Foreign Ministry warned potential evacuees that they must be prepared to spend the night at Tripoli’s airport. Two German military planes also landed in Tripoli, with the aim of taking off later in the day.
The first of four planes Russia dispatched to evacuate employees of Russian companies, including Russian Railways and Gazprom, also landed at Tripoli on Tuesday. A total of 405 Russian nationals, as well as hundreds of Turkish and Serbian nationals working for the Russian Railways, would be evacuated, the Russian Emergencies Ministry said.
Ukraine was planning to send a defense ministry plane and the Bulgarian foreign ministry said a government plane was ready to take off from Sofia airport as soon as it had permission to land in Tripoli to pick up 180 people.
In Poland, the Foreign Ministry said it would send a government plane to Tripoli Wednesday to evacuate at least 70 Poles. It urged its citizens in the eastern parts of Libya not to leave homes, warning of “gangs that are carrying out beatings and attacks on property.”
The French Foreign Ministry said two French military planes had arrived in Tripoli, where French citizens had begun to board them.
Dozens of French citizens arrived at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport on Tuesday on a commercial flight from Tripoli, expressing relief to be home.
One French man who did not provide his name as a scrum of reporters huddled around him said foreigners were not being targeted. “It’s an internal conflict,” he said.