RAS JDIR, Tunisia (Reuters) - Bangladeshis fleeing violent unrest in Libya trudged from Tunisia’s border on foot on Friday to a nearby transit camp, while Egyptian refugees piled onto Tunisian city buses for evacuation by air.
Officials at the airport in Djerba said they expected 50 evacuation flights to take off during the day. A German ship was due to dock further north to join the operation.
Thousands of Bangladeshi construction workers, loaded with baggage, walked slowly in single file along the road from the border to the camp in a line 4 km (2.5 miles) long as yellow city buses packed with evacuees streamed by.
“There are not enough buses for us,” said one man, with a smile.
The relief operation appeared to be giving priority to the last of the 45,000 Egyptians who have protested loudly and angrily each day over what they felt was their government’s slow and uncaring response to their predicament.
The refugee flow began on February 21 and reached a peak on Tuesday and Wednesday, with chaotic scenes of desperation and panic at the border. United Nations relief officials said most of the Egyptians had now been evacuated.
On Friday, they were driven directly to Djerba for flights out, while Bangladeshis left behind their makeshift shelters in the border compound to move into vacated tents erected by the U.N.’s refugee agency, the UNHCR.
Italy’s Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa told Reuters three C-130 planes would each fly about 100 Egyptian workers home, and each plane would make about three flights a day for now.
Only about 1,800 people had crossed the border from Libya on Thursday, the UNHCR said, about a tenth of the number who surged through in one day earlier this week, threatening to swamp Tunisia’s capacity to process the desperate arrivals.
Foreigners in Libya have begun fleeing into Algeria as forces loyal to Gaddafi guarded exit routes to Tunisia and Egypt, international aid groups said.
“We are learning,” said Tunisian Army colonel Mohamed Essoussi. “We made a few little mistakes at the beginning but we have the situation under control now.”
He said many refugees were arriving exhausted, and had to be screened for injuries, sickness and contagious disease.
Drivers of the yellow city buses requisitioned for the airport shuttle were wearing surgical masks.
Essoussi said the UNHCR and Tunisian Army camp could take 17,000 people at time “and if 17,000 are moved out, then 17,000 more can move in.”
The big question emergency experts are as yet unable to answer is how many more people might flee into Tunisia from some 1.5 million foreigners estimated to have been working in Libya when protests erupted against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.
Some estimates say perhaps half that number have by now left the country, to the east via Benghazi which is in the hands of anti-Gaddafi forces, or from the capital Tripoli itself and even from the south of the vast desert state into Niger.
About 100,000 have already left via Tunisia, according to the border authority count.
“Of course we must foresee the worst, and if there is a surge we will be able to take more people and provide more logistical and medical and paramedical help,” Essoussi said.
Reuters reporters taken to the Libyan side of the border on a government-organised trip on Thursday saw very few people at a quiet, orderly frontier post showing no sign of the week’s mass movement of frightened people.
Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina in Tripoli; Editing by Louise Ireland