BRITISH military planes have flown into Libyan air space in a daring, secret rescue of more than 150 foreign workers as fears of a civil war triggered a desperate exodus.
Those rescued by the British C-130 Hercules from the Libyan desert were among thousands evacuated from the troubled nation by air, land and sea in dramatic scenes.
The exodus came as terrified residents of Libya’s capital Tripoli braced for bloody battles after Muammar Gaddafi’s forces prepared to defend the city from a rebellion controlling much of the rest of the country.
Australia has evacuated its diplomats and followed the US in imposing sanctions on LIbya and the UN Security Council began tough negotiations on how to sanction the Libyan leader for a deadly crackdown that Tripoli’s mission to the United Nations said had killed thousands of protesters.
Barack Obama also stepped up calls for an end to the Gaddafi regime, saying the embattled leader needs to “leave now,” having lost the legitimacy to rule.
In a bold rescue mission, two British military aircraft swooped into Libya and evacuated more than 150 foreign nationals from remote camps in the desert.
The transport planes involved in the daring rescue later landed in Malta after picking up the civilians from south of Benghazi, said Britain’s Defence Secretary Liam Fox.
The mission was cloaked in secrecy but Sky News reported that it involved troops from Britain’s elite Special Boat Service who are normally tasked with maritime counterterrorism.
The rescue mission was bold because few planes have been able to fly through Libyan air space. The aircraft entered Libyan airspace without permission and flew to the town of Nafoora in eastern Libya, before splitting up and heading to Amal and Wafa in the oil fields.
One of those who was rescued said the military plane he boarded in Libya was initially supposed to carry around 65 people, but quickly grew to more than double that.
“It was very cramped but we were just glad to be out of there and getting on the flight,” Patrick Eyles, a 43-year-old Briton who arrived on one of the C-130s, said at Malta International Airport.
A British warship and a Chinese-chartered ferry also docked in the Malta loaded with 2,500 evacuees.
“It was very scary, the scariest experience of my life,” George Camilleri, a Maltese national who fled violence in the now rebel-held eastern Libyan port of Benghazi.
Mr Camilleri said he witnessed “fierce fighting” in the streets of Benghazi.
Among those evacuated were Australian officials, who joined diplomats from Britain, the US and Canada in leaving for Malta.
“So our three consular staff have been evacuated,” Julia Gillard told the Nine Network.
“As Prime Minister, I’ve got a duty of care to our consular staff and like other nations I formed the view that it was not safe to have them stay in Tripoli, so we’ve got them out.”
Ms Gillard said there was a “very limited number” of Australians still in Tripoli.
The government had particular concerns about one man who was detained by Libyan security forces on February 21.
“We have been unable at this stage to confirm his location or get in contact with him.”
A Tunisian official said meanwhile that more than 38,000 people had fled across Tunisia’s main Ras Jedir border since the start of the exodus a week ago.
The number included 18,000 Tunisians, 15,000 Egyptians, 2,500 Libyans and 2,500 Chinese, said Colonel Malek Mihoub of the Civil Protection authority.
Many are migrant workers who are part of a vast multinational workforce including domestic helpers, builders and oil workers on the move to escape the violence.
The International Organisation for Migration said about 15,000 Egyptians were stranded at the Ras Jedir border awaiting evacuation help.
Hundreds of foreigners including Egyptians, Iraqis and Syrians have also fled from Libya into Algeria through the Sahara desert.
Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Nigeria, the Philippines and South Korea are among the countries that have or had large communities in Libya – drawn by an oil boom that has brought billions of dollars in investments.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said yesterday that 35 Australians plus the Consul-General and two consular staff were currently registered as still being in Libya.
Another 17 departed Tripoli for Malta on board two ferries during the week.
“We continue to try to contact six Australians we have not yet been able to reach, including two Australians being detained,” a DFAT spokesman said.