March 8, 2011 / 7:33 PM / 8 years ago

Aid agencies concerned as Libya refugee numbers stall

* Not clear if Libya holding back refugees, numbers fall

* Officials prepare for renewed exodus from Libya

* Looting soldiers say they’re taking back Libyan wealth

By Mariam Karouny

RAS JDIR, Tunisia, March 8 (Reuters) - The number of migrants fleeing Libya has dropped over the past days and it was not clear if they were being held back deliberately or were afraid to make the journey, aid officials said on Tuesday.

Fewer than one-fifth of the foreign workers believed ready to flee Libya have made it to the Tunisian border or into Egypt, they said.

“Things are going on in Libya in a very worrying way and we need to be prepared if by any chance outflows take place. It is impossible to know exactly what is happening on the other side,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres at the Ras Jdir crossing into Tunisia.

He said it may be only a lull before another surge of people pour across the borders, and aid agencies needed to be prepared.

William Lacy Swing, director general of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimated that only 15-20 percent of migrants in Libya had left so far.

“The fact that the flows have somewhat slowed down does not mean there will not be more,” he said.

More than 215,000 migrants have left Libya since fighting began but the flow slowed late last week, according to UNHCR and IOM officials in Geneva.

Refugees arriving at Ras Jdir, the main border crossing into Tunisia from Tripoli, told of brutal treatment from troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi who looted them of most of their possessions.

“They said our belongings belonged to Libya, we’d earned them from Libya’s wealth so we must return them,” said one man too frightened to give his name. “They said this is for Libya’s people, not for those who leave Libya when it needs them.”

ARMY CHECKPOINTS

A Sudanese man said soldiers at one checkpoint along the way asked “what do you have from Libya’s riches” before confiscating his only item of any value, an electric razor. He broke down in tears as he crossed the border. “He can have it. I am happy to be out, that is the important thing,” he said.

Nabil, a Tunisian arriving with his two boys, said Tripoli was quiet on Monday but he heard of continued fighting as they passed Zawiyah, a disputed town under heavy government attack. “I saw a lot of bombed houses in Zawiyah,” he said.

Several other refugees reported calm in Tripoli but many tanks and army checkpoints along the road to the border. “They searched our bags and took what they wanted,” said Saeida Sassi, who got out with her two small daughters but minus her laptop.

Guterres said Libyan forces seemed to have gained control of the border area in recent days, which could have led to the drop in arrivals.

Asked about reports that satellite images showed a camp with internally displaced people about 15 km (9 miles) inside the border, he said: “We have the same kind of indication but we do not have an accurate version of what is happening there.

“UNHCR has no satellite images,” he said. “The only thing we can say is that we have worrying information about what might be happening and we need to be prepared to support those in distress.”

“They were rough with us,” said a Sudanese man of the Libyan soldiers along the route. “They took my money — 1,500 Libyan dinars ($1,200) and my cellphone.” (Writing by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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