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Rescue ship evacuates 800 from Misurata to Benghazi

Most arriving in Benghazi, the Libyan rebels' stronghold, are migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa and other areas who were left stranded amid the siege by Kadafi's forces.

May 05, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Migrant workers arrive in Benghazi after being evacuated by a chartered ferry from Misurata.
Migrant workers arrive in Benghazi after being evacuated by a chartered… (Mohammed Salem, Reuters )

Reporting from Benghazi, Libya — A rescue ship packed with migrant workers from the besieged Libyan city of Misurata arrived Thursday at the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, even as rebels received assurances in Rome of a financial aid package from the United States and other international powers.

The chartered ferry Red Star One had been delayed for days from reaching Misurata because of fears about government shelling and mines planted in the sea by forces loyal to Moammar Kadafi.

The vessel, chartered by the International Organization for Migration, finally docked in Misurata on Wednesday amid shelling of a nearby camp, picked up evacuees and the wounded, then quickly headed out to the Mediterranean en route to Benghazi, the rebels' de facto capital.

On board the ferry were more than 800 people, most of them migrant laborers from sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom had spent a harrowing week or more in a makeshift camp in Misurata's port. Five migrant workers were killed Wednesday when shells hit the camp, witnesses said.

"We were scared all the time," said Julius Chukes, 35, a Nigerian evacuee, as he and scores of other bedraggled evacuees lugged bags, blankets and other belongings off the ship. "We're just so happy to be out of that place."

Also evacuated were more than three dozen injured, including several critical cases, though doctors said more than a dozen patients were left behind in the rush to leave Misurata because of fears that the boat could be hit in the shelling.

"I'm terribly disappointed," said Anas Toweir, a Libyan physician who was in charge of the medical team on the ship.

Once the ship started to pull out from Misurata's port, Toweir said, people began leaping aboard from the slip in a frantic bid to escape. At least one family was separated, with some members reaching the boat and others stranded in the heavily damaged city.

"There was just a sense of chaos," Toweir said.

It was the sixth and possibly the final migrant evacuation ship to make the hazardous trip to Misurata, said officials of the International Office of Migration, a Geneva-based international aid group. The group has evacuated about 6,000 people from Misurata and says most migrants stranded in the port city appear to have been rescued.

Misurata has become a potent symbol of the resistance to Kadafi's more than four-decade rule. It is the only coastal city in the west that has held out against government forces, which still surround the city of 300,000 and shell it every day. The sprawling port remains the town's lifeline.

Rebel forces are concentrated in the east, but they continue to resist Kadafi's troops in both Misurata and in the rugged area of the western mountains near the Tunisian border. Daily airstrikes by NATO forces have degraded government forces but have not knocked them out.

Kadafi has denounced the airstrikes as illegal foreign intervention and called for a cease-fire. Washington and other capitals allied with the rebels have demanded that Kadafi step down.

In Rome on Thursday, the U.S. and other powers opposed to Kadafi's regime agreed on a new fund to aid Libyan rebels. The allies also pledged to seek ways to use billions of dollars in frozen Libyan government assets abroad to assist the insurgents.

Rebel administrators in Benghazi say they will run out of money in about three weeks, leaving them unable to pay salaries, buy food and medicine and keep the enclave running.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who hosted the meeting of the so-called Contact Group aiding the rebels, said more than $250 million in humanitarian aid was already available for the anti-Kadafi transitional council in Benghazi. Other donations were expected to bolster the amount.

The rebels, however, are seeking up to $3 billion in aid to keep their cause afloat for the next few months

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Rome that the allies were seeking "the most effective ways to deliver financial assistance and other means of supporting" the Libyan opposition.

The Obama administration plans to pursue legislation that would enable Washington to tap some of the more than $30 billion in frozen Libyan assets in the U.S., Clinton said. The rebels have asked for a line of credit based on the frozen assets, which they say top more than $160 billion worldwide.

Experts have cited potential legal barriers to releasing the frozen funds to the self-declared rebel government in Benghazi. Most capitals, including Washington, have not recognized it as the official government of Libya.

More than 500,000 people have fled the fighting in the North African nation, officials say. Most are migrant workers and their families, many from Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa and other nations.

The United Nations and other groups have organized a massive humanitarian effort to evacuate the migrants and facilitate a return to their homelands. Sub-Saharan Africans and other migrants who arrived in Benghazi on Thursday from Misurata were to be taken by buses to Egypt, where aircraft were being chartered to return them to their homelands.

"Right now we just want to go home," said Abdullah Sadik, 35, a plumber from Bangladesh who disembarked from the ferry. "Our lives really cannot continue in a normal way here in Libya."

The migrants interviewed generally said they were neutral in Libya's upheaval, but some were clearly outraged that shells hit the refugee compound where they were staying in Misurata.

"I hate Kadafi because of our brothers who he has killed," said John Kwabea, 29, a plasterer from Ghana. "You can't be for someone who has taken the life of your brother."

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