March 1, 2011 / 1:16 PM / 9 years ago

UPDATE 3-Thousands fleeing Libya cause chaos at border

* Border guards fire into air to disperse crowds

* On other side, thousands await repatriation

* Egyptian workers stranded near border for days

(Updates with more details)

By Doug Hamilton

RAS JDIR, Tunisia, March 1 (Reuters) - Tunisian border guards fired into the air on Tuesday to try to control a crowd of people clamouring to get through a border crossing to escape violence in neighbouring Libya.

Border guards were letting mostly foreigners who had been working in Libya through the crossing at Ras Jdir but could not process them through immigration fast enough to keep up with the numbers fleeing a revolt against Muammar Gaddafi’s rule.

The crowd was pressed up against a concrete wall dividing the no man’s land between the Libyan and Tunisian border posts. At intervals, Tunisian border guards would open a blue metal gate to let a small group through.

But some threw their bags over the wall and tried to climb over, prompting border guards first to hit them with sticks and then to fire repeatedly into the air.

A Reuters reporter saw medical teams from the Red Crescent take at least three people out of the crowd after they fainted in the crush, and volunteers threw bottles of water over the wall into the crowd.

“It looks like it’s going to get worse ... They are going to break down the wall in the end,” said Ayman Gharaibeh, an officer with the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly migrant workers, have fled Libya since an uprising against the four-decade rule of Muammar Gaddafi led to a violent crackdown by his security forces.

About 70,000 have passed through Ras Jdir in the past two weeks, and in the last few days the rate has increased to up to 15,000 per day, said Gharaibeh.

“The numbers are daunting,” he said.


There were chaotic scenes on the Tunisian side of the border too. Thousands of Egyptian refugees, who had escaped Libya, asked angrily why their government was not arranging to have them repatriated.

“When are we going to be taken out of here? We cannot accept this,” said one Egyptian at a tent camp about 5 km (3 miles) from the border. “Give me a camel. I will take a camel. I just want to go home.”

Many of the refugees stranded at the border do not have the money to pay for their passage home. Some have been sleeping out in the open for several days in cold and wet conditions.

There had been reports that the Egyptian authorities were sending two ships to a nearby port to pick them up but there was no sign of the vessels on Tuesday.

The UNHCR extended its camp near the border overnight, erecting tents with a capacity to accommodate 10,000 people. The organisation was preparing to put in more tents to increase the camp’s capacity to 20,000.

“There is growing tension,” said Hovig Etyemezian, senior protection officer with the UNHCR.

“Water and sanitation is a major issue, toilets are our next big headache,” Etyemezian said at the camp, where 500 white tents went up overnight, each big enough for 10 people.

A Tunisian army colonel said his forces were managing the flow of refugees through the border but needed foreign governments to do more to transport their citizens home.

“We need the most rapid possible evacuation,” said Colonel Mohamed Essoussi. “The major weaknesses are in transport, in air and maritime transport.”

A spokeswoman with the U.N. World Food Programme said 80 tonnes of high energy biscuits had been flown in and delivered to a warehouse around one hour’s drive from the border.

Two truckloads of biscuits, enough to feed about 7,000 people for one day, were transferred from the warehouse to the border area. The spokeswoman said more will follow in coming days. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London; Writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Paul Taylor)

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