THOUSANDS of Europeans fled the unrest in Libya yesterday and the United States has ordered non-essential personnel to leave the oil-rich north African nation amid escalating violence.
Portugal, Austria and The Netherlands sent military planes to Tripoli to evacuate their nationals and those of other EU states as companies with major interests in the country, including British energy giant BP and Italy’s ENI and Finmeccanica, were also set to repatriate their employees.
An Austrian foreign ministry spokesman said regular flights on Austrian Airlines from Tripoli to Vienna were fully booked, adding that the airline would use a larger plane today for the daily round-trip flight.
Russia was to begin evacuating its nationals today, Moscow’s emergency situations ministry said. The Russian community totals more than 500.
Earlier yesterday, rail monopoly Russian Railways said that it would evacuate its employees working on a multi-billion euro high-speed railway.
Turkey plans to send four planes and two ferries to evacuate more nationals from Libya after repatriating some 600 at the weekend after rioters stormed construction sites in the Benghazi area, the NTV news channel reported.
“Our first priority at the moment is the safety of our nationals,” an aide to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
Mr Erdogan phoned Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to ensure the safety of Turks in the country, where dozens of Turkish construction companies are active employing some 25,000 Turks, officials said.
Transport Minister Binali Yildirim however said planes were being denied permission to land in Benghazi, and a Turkish aircraft that flew there on a repatriation mission early yesterday returned empty to Istanbul after it failed to touch down, Anatolia news agency reported.
Croatia and Serbia were also joining the exodus after some Serbian nationals were attacked by a group of looters, according to the Serbian foreign ministry.
Protesters Monday overran several Libyan cities while regime stalwarts began defecting as the pillars of Gaddafi’s 41-year-old hardline regime were targeted in the capital Tripoli.
Meanwhile the United States ordered all non-essential staff to leave Libya and warned US nationals to avoid travel to the country.
Several cities, including eastern Benghazi, the base of a protest movement inspired by uprisings in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, have reportedly fallen to demonstrators following the defection of some army units.
Human Rights Watch said that at least 233 people had been killed since Thursday in the Libyan government’s crackdown on protests and fresh violence erupted after Gaddafi’s son warned the country faces civil war.
Meanwhile a spokesman for BP, which has about 140 staff in Libya including about 40 expatriates, said: “We’re just monitoring the situation and making preparations to evacuate some of the families, and some non-essential staff in the next day or two.”
Italy said it would begin airlifting Italian nationals who want to leave Libya today with special flights being laid on in conjunction with national carrier Alitalia.
“A repatriation plan has been activated…. The objective is to secure the speedy return of our co-nationals,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.
The spokesman said there were around 1500 Italians resident in Libya.
Italy’s ENI, the biggest foreign energy producer in Libya, said it was evacuating some of its foreign personnel from the country but stressed that oil production was not affected.
Two French firms, energy giant Total and the Vinci construction group, said they were repatriating most of their expatriate staff from Libya.
Other oil companies – Norway’s Statoil, Germany’s Wintershall and RWE Dea, and Austria’s OMV – also announced the repatriation of some or all of their expatriate staff.
Yesterday a South Korean building site near Tripoli was overrun and looted, leaving some employees injured, according to the South Korean foreign ministry, which added that other attacks had occurred against South Korean interests in recent days.