High winds, rough seas hamper Libyan evacuations

By Thanassis Stavrakis

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 24 2011 7:20 p.m. MST

A member of Turkish army's Special Commando unit who protected Turkish nationals during their journey from Libya, stands as they leave the Orhan Gazi, one of two ships sent by Turkey to take home some 3,000 Turks, at the port of Marmaris, Turkey, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011. About 25,000 Turks work for Turkish construction firms in Libya. So far, two Turkish ships have evacuated about 3,000 Turkish nationals.

Burhan Ozbilici, 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.

The first big group of U.N. workers evacuated from Libya arrived in Rome on Thursday night aboard an Italian C-130 and said the situation in Tripoli was deteriorating.

"We did see much violence, yes, but the city is quiet and calm now," said Ramesh Tuladhar of the U.N. Development Program, who was one of 22 U.N. workers who arrived along with a similar number of Italians at Italy's military Pratica di Mare military base near Rome.

A second C-130 with 97 people aboard arrived from Sabha, mostly with tourists from Italy, France, Germany, Britain and Slovenia.

"All was under control, a very heavy control, under these people from the leader," German tourist Holger Gwosdz said. "Now I'm feeling free. Thank you Italy."

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.

One of the military planes left Tripoli for Greece late Thursday carrying 80 Greek nationals, the foreign ministry said.

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.

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