UK, Germany fly secret missions into Libya

By Sylvia Hui

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Feb. 27 2011 9:20 p.m. MST

British nationals arriving from Libya disembark in the port of Piraeus, Greece on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011. The ferry Nissos Rodos arrived early Sunday from Benghazi, eastern Libya, carrying 390 passengers of various nationalities from strife-torn Libya.

Kostas Tsironis, Associated Press

BERLIN — British and German military planes swooped into Libya's desert, rescuing hundreds of oil workers and civilians stranded at remote sites, as thousands of other foreigners are still stuck in Tripoli by bad weather and red tape.

The secret military missions into the turbulent North Africa country signal the readiness of Western nations to disregard Libya's territorial integrity when it comes to the safety of their citizens.

Three British Royal Air Force planes plucked 150 stranded civilians from multiple locations in the eastern Libyan desert before flying them to Malta on Sunday, the British Defense Ministry said in a statement. One of the RAF Hercules aircraft appeared to have suffered minor damage from small arms fire, Defence Secretary Liam Fox said.

The rescue follows a similar secret commando raid Saturday by British Special Forces that got another 150 oil workers from the remote Libyan desert.

Separately, Germany said its air force had evacuated 132 people also from the desert during a secret military mission on Saturday.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Sunday that two German military planes landed on a private runway belonging to the Wintershall AG company, evacuating 22 Germans and 112 others and flying them to the Greek island of Crete.

Another 18 German citizens were rescued by the British military in a separate military operation Saturday that targeted remote oil installations in the Libyan desert, Westerwelle said. He said around 100 other German citizens are still in Libya and the government was trying to get them out as quickly as possible.

"I want to thank the members of the Germany military for their brave mission," Westerwelle said.

German military missions abroad need approval by parliament, and Westerwelle said he had spoken to all party leaders in parliament Friday to tell them about the upcoming military mission. He said the coalition government led by Chancellor Angela Merkel had evaluated the situation in Libya as "very dangerous" and therefore ordered an immediate evacuation by the air force.

The German foreign ministry refused to name the exact location of the company and the site where the evacuation took place.

The head of Wintershall, Rainer Seele, thanked the government.

"We are all relieved and grateful," he was quoted as saying by the DAPD news agency.

Prior to their secret missions in Libya, the British government had been embarrassed by earlier botched attempts to rescue its citizens stranded by the uprising in this North African nation. Its first rescue flight broke down and became stuck on a London runway on Wednesday.

But on Sunday, newspapers could not gush enough about the "daring and dramatic" military operation by two RAF Hercules planes that brought stranded citizens to Malta.

"SAS swoops in dramatic Libya rescue," the Sunday Telegraph headline read, in reference to the storied Special Air Service.

The mission was risky because Britain sent the planes in without obtaining prior Libyan permission, Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

One evacuee said his military plane was supposed to carry around 65 people out of Libya, but quickly grew to double that.

"It was very cramped but we were just glad to be out of there," Patrick Eyles, a 43-year-old Briton, said at Malta International Airport.

As thousands finally made it to safety on the Greek island of Crete, two ships trying to ferry foreigners out of Libya were still struggling to leave Tripoli, delayed by officialdom and rough seas. A Russian-chartered ferry arrived at a Libyan port further east to pick up more than 1,000 people.

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