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High winds, rough seas hamper Libyan evacuations

By Thanassis Stavrakis

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 24 2011 9:30 a.m. MST

A Chinese evacuee carries his bag under a heavy rain at the port of Iraklio city, on the Greek island of Crete, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011. Two Greek ferries, background, carried some 4,500 Chinese and other nationalities from violence-torn Libya docked on the island.

Thanassis Stavrakis, Associated Press

IRAKLIO, Crete — Two ships braved churning seas Thursday to whisk some 4,500 Chinese workers away from strife-torn Libya to the island of Crete, while rough weather further west in the Mediterranean left hundreds of Americans stranded on a ferry in Tripoli.

As tens of thousands of foreigners sought to flee fierce fighting in Libya, European countries scrambled to send more ships and military planes to the North African nation and Britain mulled whether to send in its military to rescue stranded oil workers.

Several airlines suspended flights to Libya on Thursday — Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines and Alitalia — amid scenes of chaos and deteriorating security and safety at Tripoli airport.

Those who made it out described a frightening scene: bodies hanging from electric poles in Libya's eastern port of Benghazi and militia trucks driving around full of dead bodies. One video showed a tank apparently crushing a car with people inside.

In Crete, some passengers smiled and waved from the decks of the Greek-flagged Hellenic Spirit as it arrived from Benghazi, a city that has broken away from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's control. Others departing the ship needed medical attention.

"The situation was pretty bad over there ... we heard lots of gunfire and saw many burned-out buildings," Pantelis Kimendiadis, a Greek oil worker employed near Benghazi, told The Associated Press moments after stepping off the ferry.

"Everyone is really tired and just glad to be out of there ... We have Libyan friends and colleagues who got us out. Our lives were in their hands," he said.

Up to 15,000 Chinese are expected to arrive by ferry to Crete and fly home on chartered flights — about half the number of Chinese working in Libya on construction and oil projects.

Greece has sent four more ferries to Libya, along with a frigate and three military transport planes, and Prime Minister George Papandreou has offered to help other nations evacuate their people.

People who managed to flee Tripoli by air described chaos at the airport, with people shoving and climbing over each other to get on planes. Amateur video showed crowds of people jammed shoulder to shoulder, some appearing to be camped out.

"The airport is just a zoo. There's about 10,000 people there, all trying to get out," Ewan Black of Britain told the BBC as he got off a flight at London's Gatwick Airport. "It's just absolutely manic, basically it's uncontrolled."

"I lost all my luggage. It's literally bodies climbing over bodies to get to the door," Black added.

Americans who eagerly climbed aboard the Maria Dolores ferry at Tripoli's As-shahab port on Wednesday faced a long delay in their travel plans. Strong winds have been whipping up high waves in the Mediterranean, and the 600-passenger catamaran ferry was not likely to leave for Malta until Friday.

"The ferry will depart when the weather improves. At the moment, we're anticipating this will happen by tomorrow morning, but we're waiting for an updated weather report," said Elijah Waterman of the U.S. Embassy in Malta.

Britain's government discussed whether its military special forces will be needed to rescue U.K. oil workers and colleagues from other nations stranded in Libya's desert camps. The Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland docked in Benghazi and has the capacity to evacuate several hundred people.

Germany rerouted two navy frigates and one support ship to help with evacuations and had two military aircraft on standby Malta, while the Dutch government flew a C-130 military transport plane to Tripoli and was rounding up Dutch citizens to bring home.

India planned to transport 1,200 citizens by ferry to the nearby Egyptian city of Alexandria over the weekend and fly them home.

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