The United States has launched a multipronged effort to assist foreign migrant workers who have fled fighting in Libya into neighbouring Tunisia, sending two air force cargo planes to deliver blankets and other supplies, even as 10,000 Bangladeshi nationals remain stranded in that country.
Plans have also been made to fly an unspecified number of refugees from camps along the Libya-Tunisia border on Saturday. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, confirmed that in addition to the military flights to Djerba, Tunisia, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has also chartered two civilian aircraft to help repatriate stranded migrant workers.
"We know that there is a lot of confusion on the ground that is often difficult for us to sort through to get to what the actual facts are," Clinton said on Friday. "But the United States remains deeply concerned about the welfare of the Libyan people. Both the Libyans and those who are fleeing Libya are the subject of our outreach."
PJ Crowley, the US state department's spokesman, confirmed that the C-130 aircraft had delivered the supplies, and that they would repatriate Egyptian nationals on Saturday.
The two airforce C-130 cargo planes flew from Ramstein air base in Germany, picked up 4,000 blankets, 9,600 10-litre water containers and 40 rolls of plastic sheeting to be used for shelter, and then headed for Tunisia.
More than 10,000 Bangladeshi nationals, however, remain stranded in Tunisia, even as planeloads of Egyptian refugees were airlifted home from the country.
The evacuation involved a major international effort, with aircraft and ships from Britain, France and other countries taking part in a coordinated mission to shift thousands of people who have fled the violence in Libya. Officials said about 50 evacuation flights were to leave Djerba, in Tunisia.
"Thanks to a rapid response from the international community, significant progress has been made with the evacuation of Egyptians and other nationalities from Tunisia," Melissa Fleming, the UN refugees agency (UNHCR) spokeswoman, told reporters in Geneva.
She added that about 12,500 people still awaited evacuation, and that 10,000 of them were Bangladeshis. She said that two flights were planned to head to Bangladesh, with a Bangladeshi diplomat indicating that about 350 people will be evacuated on those aircraft.
A line of thousands of Bangladeshis stretched for kilometres between camps in the Tunisian port town of Ras Ajdir and the town of Choucha.
Tunisian authorities said the Bangaldeshi refugees were being moved to a transit camp run by the military and the United Nations.
The number of foreigners who fled Libya for Tunisia reached 100,000 since February 20 on Friday, according to Monji Slim, a representative of the regional Red Crescent. About 100,000 more are said to have headed to Egypt and Niger, which Libya also shares land borders with.
They included 35,000 Egyptians, 5,500 Chinese, 1,000 Indians, 1,760 Filipinos and close to 800 Vietnamese. About 2,500 Libyans, mostly businessmen, have also been registered.
The UNHCR has expressed concern that refugees are now being prevented from leaving the country by pro-government forces. Several refugees reported that their cash, mobile phones and cameras had been confiscated en route the border. While tens of thousands have been crossing the border daily, on Thursday that number plummetted to just 1,800.
Kristalina Georgieva, the EU's crisis response commissioner, has urged the Libyan government to allow humanitarian workers into the country.
The aid camp at Ras Ajdir can handle about 20,000 refugees at a time, and its white tents, equipped with blankets and mattresses filled up quickly on Friday.
There is a steady flow of buses running between the camp and the airport, about two hours away.
More than 550 tons of humanitarian supplies like tents, blankets and kitchen sets arrived in recent days, said Goran Stojanovski, of the UN refugee agency. Tunisians have donated much of the food at the camp, cooking warm lunches of pasta and couscous.
In midafternoon, new arrivals lined up for white bread, yogurt and water.
In another part of the camp, men waited for the chance to make a three-minute call home, thanks to Telecoms Sans Frontieres (Telecommunications Without Borders), a group donating the service.
At an Egyptian crossing, 40 West Africans "paid a human smuggler to take them to Egypt in a sealed and refrigerated truck," said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the International Organisation for Migration.
US economic measures
Also on Friday, it was announced that Timothy Geithner, the US treasury secretary, would be visiting Germany to discuss with officials of that country global efforts to pressure the Gaddafi government through economic penalties.
Geithner told the Senate foreign relations committee on Thursday that the US government had so far frozen approximately $32 billion in Libyan assets, the largest such freeze to ever take place.
In comments on Thursday, Barack Obama, the US president, asserted that Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, must leave and that his administration was considering a full range of options, including a no-fly zone. He stressed, however, that humanitarian relief was an essential part of any international response.
Two US amphibious warships, the USS Kearsarge and the USS Ponce are deployed in the Mediterranean sea, but have so far not received any orders regarding action, humanitarian or otherwise, Pentagon officials say. Four hundred US Marines have been dispatched to join the USS Kearsarge, however.