Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1208, (7 - 13 August 2014)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1208, (7 - 13 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Waiting for a flight

Thousands of Egyptians fleeing Libya remain stranded on the Tunisian border, Amirah Ibrahim reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

More than 10,000 Egyptians working in Libya who sought refuge in neighbouring Tunisia are waiting to return to Egypt. Tunisia is restricting entrance to foreigners fleeing the violence in Libya to those guaranteed an immediate transfer to their home country.

The government has asked national carrier EgyptAir to bring stranded Egyptians back to Cairo after they have been collected from the border by Egyptian embassy personnel. “Any Egyptian national crossing the Libyan border into Tunisia will find an EgyptAir plane waiting him to bring him back to Egypt,” Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal said Monday.

EgyptAir began operating an emergency airlift between Djerba Airport in Tunisia and the Cairo International Airport one week ago.

On Monday Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri visited Tunis and thanked the Tunisian government for helping facilitate the movement of Egyptian nationals from the Libyan border. “We don’t have precise figures but between 5,000 and 10,000 people are still waiting to leave,” said Shoukri. 

Shoukri met with Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa to follow up on evacuation efforts. “The Tunisian prime minister said Tunisia is keen to provide all possible assistance to help Egyptians stranded along the border to return home,” he said.

Tunisian authorities are providing buses to transfer some of those stranded, and there is the possibility of using Gabès Airport in addition to Djerba to help with the evacuation. At border crossings priority is being given to children, women and the elderly.

The army has sent food and medical aid sealed in containers to Egyptians stranded in border areas. Tripoli Airport, the scene of ongoing battles between rival militias, has been closed since 13 July.

“We are using A340 and B777 aircraft for the evacuation,” said Sameh Hefni, chairman and CEO of EgyptAir. “Each carries 300 passengers. We are working in coordination with all the relevant Tunisian authorities.”

Tunisia’s aviation authorities are allowing EgyptAir to operate as many flights as needed out of Djerba Airport. At present, EgyptAir operates seven flights daily, transporting 2,100 passengers.

“We have already brought more than 7,000 Egyptians home,” said Hefni. “We are ready to double our operation to evacuate Egyptian nationals as quickly as possible.”

 Hefni declined to put a price tag on the evacuation operation, the cost of which is being covered by the government. Workers being evacuated are not being charged for their flights.

There are unofficial estimates of up to 13,000 Egyptians being stranded on the Libyan-Tunisian border. On Friday Libyan border guards opened fire on hundreds of Egyptians trying to storm the Ras Jedir border crossing into Tunisia. Two Egyptians were killed.

Ihab Mohi, head of the Holding Company for Airports and Air Navigation, told Al-Ahram Weekly that additional slots had been made available on an exceptional basis so EgyptAir could operate an air bridge from Djerba to Cairo International Airport. “We have allocated two gates for evacuation flights and extra passport control officers have been assigned to handle the necessary paperwork.”

Many of those arriving are travelling on emergency documents, having lost their passports in their rush to flee Libya.

“The situation remains under control, though 5,000 to 6,000 people are crossing the border on a daily basis,” said Tunisian Foreign Minister Mohamed Hamdi. “This means we have to be very careful.”

Tunisia is increasingly worried about border security and the possible infiltration of Islamist militants. In July, 15 Tunisian soldiers were killed when two checkpoints along the Algerian border came under attack.

Mohamed Fayez Gubreel, Libya’s ambassador to Cairo, appeared keen to downplay the crisis. “There are more than 1.6 million Egyptian nationals working in Libya. That 15,000 want to leave should not constitute a major concern of either the Egyptian or Libyan authorities. We understand how people can fall prey to fears fanned by rumours but the picture is not as black as it appears. Egyptians are safe in Libya.”

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