Foreigners fled the chaos in Libya by the thousands, with Americans and Turks climbing aboard ships, Europeans boarding evacuation flights and North Africans racing to border crossings in overcrowded vans.
Two Turkish ships whisked 3,000 citizens away from the unrest engulfing Libya as Turkey cranked up its largest-ever evacuation, seeking to protect an estimated 25,000 Turkish workers in Libya. More than 200 Turkish companies are involved in construction projects in Libya worth over $15 billion, and some construction sites have come under attack by protesters.
The safety of U.S. citizens was a prime concern after failed attempts earlier this week to get them out by plane. But hundreds of Americans safely boarded a 600-passenger ferry at Tripoli’s As-shahab port on Wednesday for the five-hour journey to Malta, a Mediterranean island south of Italy.
Over a dozen countries — including Russia, China, Germany and Ukraine — sent planes in to help their citizens escape an increasingly unstable situation.
Tripoli airport was chaotic and overflowing with stranded passengers, said Carlos Dominguez, who flew from the Libyan capital to Madrid. He said people could not buy tickets online and Libyan Airlines was accepting only cash.
“The doors are locked and you can only get in if you have a ticket,” he said.
Swarms of Egyptians who had lived in Libya were locked outside the airport, he said, “lying on the sidewalks with blankets and children” and all their belongings, even television sets.
“The army treats them very badly,” he added.
Passengers arriving in Rome and Malta also described scenes of chaos and violence at Tripoli’s airport, with people pushing and shoving to get onto the few flights taking off Wednesday and Libyan police and security agents kicking and beating them.
“One of my fellow passengers was actually beaten up quite heavily and kicked on,” said Steffan Arnersten, a 42-year-old Swede who works as a managing director at a technical consulting company. “He’s quite wounded.”
Sharon, a Maltese arriving home aboard the only one of three scheduled Air Malta flights to make it out Wednesday, said the situation at the airport was desperate.
“It was just terrible. People fighting for their lives, scrambling over people, pushing, shoving, kicking, everything. It was a mess.”
Irina Kuneva of Bulgaria said tensions in Tripoli were rising sharply after strongman Moammar Gadhafi’s defiant speech hinting at civil war with protesters in eastern Libya.
“He said people should either do what he tells them or there will be a civil war,” she told reporters Wednesday as she arrived in Sofia on an evacuation flight. “People are very scared.”
Two Turkish ships left the eastern Libyan port of Benghazi on Wednesday escorted by a navy frigate, heading to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Marmaris, where a soup kitchen and a field hospital were set up and buses were brought in to transfer evacuees. Turkey also sent two more ships to Libya and flew 250 more Turkish citizens back home.
Passengers cheered and whistled as the two ferries carrying 3,000 Turks docked at Marmaris early Thursday. Exhausted but relieved the passengers hauled suitcases and large carrier bags off the Orhan Gazi-1 ferry, the first to arrive.
The passengers are mostly construction workers employed by more than 200 Turkish companies involved in construction projects in Libya, worth more than $15 billion. Some 30 foreign nationals were also on board. Turkey began evacuating some 25,000 Turks after several construction sites the east of the country were raided and looted during protests last week.
Among the construction workers who saw violence first hand was Mustafa Oztekin, who worked in the hard hit Eastern city of Benghazi. “Our construction site was pillaged, our camp was looted,” Oztekin told The Associated Press. “We left for the airport thinking that it would be safe but the protesters raided the airport as well.”
“We were terrified but they quickly reassured us that they had nothing against the Turks. They were just against the regime,” he said. “In fact, it was the protesters who accompanied us to a stadium, where we waited for two days to be evacuated.”
Halil Ibrahim Yurttutan, who worked for Libya’s Mammar Arabia company in Benghazi, said company workers witnessed anti-Gadhafi militias hunting down and killing mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa. “They were killing whichever mercenary they caught, they were unforgiving,” Yurttutan said.
“Three were attacked just outside our sight with knives and sharp objects. Two were killed and were lying on the pavement. We took a third one to the hospital but we don’t know what happened to him,” Yurttutan said. He also said he witnessed a funeral of some 50 people he believes were killed by Gadhafi’s supporters.
Ali Tumkaya, the human resources manager for Turkey’s Sembol company, which was building a university in Benghazi, said militias came to raid the Benghazi airport and brought vans with more than 20 dead bodies, who Tumkaya said were paid soldiers from sub-Saharan Africa.
Saban Saridag said militias armed with machine guns tore down Gadhafi’s posters in the airport and set a section of the airport on fire. He said the militias were kind to the Turks, bringing a busload of food, heaters and blankets.
Serdar Taskin, also a Mammar Arabia employee, said he saw bodies hanging from electricity poles. But he did not know if they were protesters or Gadhafi supporters.
Turkey has now evacuated over 5,300 citizens from Libya in the last three days.
“We are carrying out the largest evacuation operation in our history,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, adding that 21 countries other countries have asked Turkey to evacuate their citizens too.
Migrants also poured across Libya’s land borders with Egypt and Tunisia on Wednesday, with vans piled high with luggage and furniture lining up at the Salloum border crossing with Egypt. Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the U.N. migration agency, said thousands of migrants were fleeing Libya.
China was also gearing up for a massive evacuation of the 30,000 or more Chinese workers in Libya building railways, infrastructure and providing oilfield services. Greece was tapped to help evacuate around 13,000 Chinese workers to Crete by ship and China’s first chartered evacuation flight left Wednesday for Libya.
Gadhafi has urged his supporters to strike back against Libyan pro-democracy protesters, escalating a crackdown that has led to widespread shooting in the streets. Nearly 300 people have been killed in the nationwide wave of anti-government protests — and possibly many more.
Libya is one of the world’s biggest oil producers — responsible for nearly 2 percent of the world’s oil — and many oil companies were evacuating their expatriate workers and families.
The Spanish oil company Repsol chartered a plane that carried 131 people from Tripoli to Madrid, evacuating all its staff from Tripoli.
Raymond Pasby of Britain, who was on the Repsol flight but works for a Kuwaiti construction company, said the Libyan capital was like a ghost town during the day but came alive at night with gunfire, protests and heavy ammunition blasts.
“It’s chaos, it is almost civil war,” the 62-year-old said. “It is really desperate. Gadhafi thinks he can do what he wants.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said about 170 British oil workers and colleagues from other nations were stranded in desert camps and unable to reach the evacuation flights.
“These camps are remote, they’re isolated, they are scattered over a large distance, they’re dependent for food or water on supplies from Libyan cities that have been severely disrupted by the violence and unrest,” he said. “They are in a perilous and frightening situation.”
Britain was sending two Boeing 757s to Tripoli to evacuate U.K. nationals, and will send a third Thursday if necessary. The royal navy frigate HMS Cumberland was arriving in international waters off Libya on Wednesday night, ready to assist evacuations if the violence escalates, Hague said.
Evacuation planes from Libya spread out across Europe.
The first planeload of evacuated Russians landed in Moscow, bringing 118 people, and three more planes were expected. A ship was also setting sail for Ras Lanuf, the site of Libya’s largest refinery and port, to evacuate up to 1,000 Russians, Turks, Serbs and Montenegrins there.
Two French military planes evacuated nearly 400 foreigners to Paris from Libya, and a third plane was en route from France. Two Bulgarian planes returned Wednesday from Tripoli with nearly 200 passengers and Dutch citizens flew home on a military plane.
Hundreds of Italians took Alitalia flights from Tripoli home, and an Italian air force plane landed Wednesday to evacuate others. Two Italian naval vessels headed to eastern Libyan ports to rescue citizens from Benghazi, Misurata, and other cities where airports had been damaged.
Arriving at Madrid’s Barajas airport on a nearly empty Libyan Airlines plane, Venezuelan oil engineer Cesar Orta said he had never witnessed violence but had heard it.
“You could hear gunshots or fireworks and hear people shouting. I wasn’t afraid, but I never left my house at night,” he said, adding that Tripoli was generally pro-Gadhafi.
Orta said the Libyans he had talked to think the unrest will die down in a week or so.
“They say things will be OK and that Gadhafi will sort things out,” Orta said.
Dominguez, who worked as an architectural consultant in Tripoli, said the Libyans he knows were furious with the international community for its hands-off approach.
“People are very angry with the international attitude,” he said.