Aid groups warn of a growing humanitarian crisis as violence in Libya continues [EPA]

A UN official has said that the refugee crisis in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia has now topped 180,000.

Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the UNHCR refugee agency told the Associated Press on Wednesday that 77,320 people had crossed from Libya into Egypt, the vast majority of them Egyptians.

She said about the same number had crossed from Libya into Tunisia, with about 30,000 more waiting at that border.

Fleming said Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces are targeting some Egyptians and Tunisians who they perceive as the main trigger of the uprising against his government and that "many, many terrified refugees'' in the Libyan capital Tripoli, are too afraid to move for fear they will be targeted.

She added some Somalis and Eritreans around Benghazi also feel hunted and accused of being mercenaries from sub-Saharan African nations.

UN officials say the situation has been made even more volatile by humanitarian aid workers being blocked from reaching western Libya, patients reportedly being executed in hospitals, or shot by gunmen hiding in ambulances.

Meanwhile, thousands of nationals from Vietnam and Bangladesh, at the Libyan side of the border with Tunisia are "in urgent need of food, water and shelter," Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for International Organisation for Migration (IOM), told the Associated Press.

'Urgent need'

Pandya said that Nepalese, Ghanaian and Nigerian nationals are also sleeping unprotected at the borders.

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"With thousands of migrants still awaiting authorisation to enter Tunisia, there is an urgent need to decongest the border area which lacks adequate facilities to host large numbers of people," said Marc Petzold, the IOM's Tunisia mission chief.

IOM officials also say that thousands of people are also stranded at Libya's Benghazi port in the cold weather and with litle supplies of food. The organisation said it is trying to arrange evacuation for them by boat to the Egyptian port city of Alexandria. 

European countries have responded to the growing refugee crisis, with the governments of France, Spain and Britain saying they would evacuate thousands of workers stranded on the Tunisian border.

Emergency airlifts along Libya's borders were launched on Wednesday, amid UN warnings that rapid action was needed to protect and feed them before the exodus turned into a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

"It is vital to do this, these people should not be kept in transit camps if it is possible to take them back home," David Cameron, the British prime minister said on Wednesday.

Britain will charter three commercial passenger aircraft to fly 6,000 people back to Egypt over the next three days. The first two planes will leave Britain on Wednesday for the town of Djerba in Tunisia.

Military transport planes

France will send military transport planes and a naval landing ship to evacuate 5,000 refugees within the next week, its foreign ministry said.

Colonel Thierry Burkhard, spokesman for the French armed forces, said a naval amphibious landing vessel should arrive in the Mediterranean within two days, as part of the operation.

Separately, two planes chartered to take medical supplies to the central hospital in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi had arrived in Cairo late on Tuesday and should reach their destination shortly, the French foreign ministry said.

Cameron said Britain had flown tents for 1,500 people and blankets for 36,000 people to the Tunisian border on Monday.

He also confirmed that Britain was still considering plans for a military no-fly zone over Libya if Gadaffi "unleashes more things on his own people."

Source: Agencies