Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1209, (14 - 20 August 2014)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1209, (14 - 20 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Welcome home

More than 12,000 Egyptian expatriates have been rescued after being stranded on the Tunisian-Libyan border, reports Amirah Ibrahim

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eg41
Al-Ahram Weekly

“We are proud of our government. We never expected to see such improvements in such a short time,” Mohammed Al-Gaa’fary said as he stepped off a flight bringing home Egyptians fleeing the violence in Libya.

Al-Gaa’fary, 55, appeared almost baffled by the humane treatment he had received, along with the hundreds of other Egyptians who had boarded the plane at Gabès airport in Tunisia for the flight to Cairo.

“We only dreamt of seeing our families, smelling the dust of our beloved Egypt, and escaping death in Libya. We never dreamt of the authorities caring about us and planning to bring us back with dignity,” he added.

The Egyptian government’s provision of aircraft to bring the expatriates home was an important step in rebuilding trust with some of the millions of Egyptian workers abroad.

Following the security deterioration in Libya and the outbreak of fierce clashes in the country, foreigners living and working in Libya were targeted by Islamist militias and forced to flee.

Egyptians were considered at the top of the list of Islamist targets. Almost 100,000 Egyptians are believed to have returned home over the last three weeks. The surge in departures followed a series of killings in Libya that targeted Christian Egyptians.

Three years ago, as conflict broke out between the country’s revolutionaries and the forces of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, tens of thousands of people fled to the Tunisian border where they were offered emergency accommodation.

Three years on, the Tunisian government has withdrawn its support for the refugees, and Egypt’s government has arranged the transfer of its nationals back home.

The Foreign Ministry says it moved to repatriate the workers on the orders of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri visited Tunis for the first time since last year’s 30 June Revolution in order to speed up the evacuation and provide vital humanitarian supplies.

The Aviation Ministry organised the emergency airlift using the national carrier EgyptAir’s fleet. Although the authorities announced that some private airlines would also participate in operating the flights, only EgyptAir in the end transported the Egyptian refugees.

On Sunday, the carrier announced the transfer of all the Egyptians stranded on the Tunisian border, saying it had transferred 12,240 passengers on 47 flights over ten days.

The government also dispatched two commercial ships, the ferryboats Ayda and Isis, to transport 500 nationals.

For almost two weeks, EgyptAir carried out seven flights daily to different Tunisian airports where Egyptian workers had been directed by the Egyptian embassy and consulates in Libya.

“Thanks to strong coordination with the Tunisian authorities, our flights have been provided with the required slots to land at Tunisian civil and military airports, and we have been offered secure navigation over airspace in Tunisia and Libya,” Minister of Aviation Hossam Kamal told the Weekly.

Egyptians arriving at the border in buses were asked to board one of the two Egyptian aircraft waiting on the ground at the military airport in Djerba.

“We made arrangements with the Tunisians to ensure that there would be two planes waiting on the ground to take off when they were full,” explained Sameh Al-Hefni, chairman and CEO of EgyptAir.

Since Tripoli airport was closed on July 13 due to armed conflict, Egyptian workers wanting to return to Egypt were told to head to the military airport in Djerba and later to Gabès where the evacuation was completed.

Speaking to the Weekly, Ihab Mohi, head of the Holding Company for Airports and Air Navigation, said there had been close coordination between the Tunisian authorities and the Egyptian military to secure the safe passage of the Egyptian planes across Libya airspace.

“We had to take the chaos in Libya into consideration and secure the lives of hundreds of people crossing airspace threatened by rockets and missiles,” Mohi said.

Al-Hefni said that a fleet of wide-body aircraft was assigned for the mission, operating seven flights daily with B777 and A340 planes, both used for long-haul flights.

“It meant we had to modify our schedules to meet the emergency. Part of our regular operations has been affected, but thanks to contingency planning and long experience the network was not harmed,” Al-Hefni said.

“We moved A340 and B777 aircraft, each carrying 300 passengers, from Cairo International to Djerba Airport,” he said. The flights from Djerba and Gabès landed in Cairo, where procedures were simplified for those returning home.

Al-Hefni said that a report on the evacuation would be competed and given to the Cabinet. “All the flights were operated from Cairo to bring home the stranded Egyptians. The service was provided free of charge,” he added.

On Tuesday, hundreds more Egyptian nationals crossed the border at Ras Jedir heading for Gabès airport. EgyptAir said it would resume the airlift to transfer them from Tunisia to Cairo.

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