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Gadhafi loyalists stop migrants from leaving Libya

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JOHN HEILPRIN | March 8, 2011 04:36 PM EST | AP

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GENEVA — Soldiers loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi have blocked some 30,000 migrant workers from fleeing into Tunisia and forced many to return to work in the Libyan capital, a Red Crescent official said Tuesday.

The migrant workers were rounded up and apparently held in Libyan immigration buildings near the Tunisian border last week, Ibrahim Osman of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies told The Associated Press.

Osman, who heads the agency's assessment teams in northern Africa, said Gadhafi soldiers were forcibly returning many of the 30,000 Bangladeshis, Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans nearing the Ras Ajdir border crossing.

He said loyalists had held a pro-government demonstration at the crossing, and later that evening the "30,000 (migrant workers) accumulated at the Libyan border, waiting to cross."

And the Libyan government denies any knowledge of "a humanitarian crisis?" he said. "And then in the evening, those 30,000 did not cross, but disappeared.... Up until now, I don't know anybody who knows exactly where those people have gone."

Osman, a Sudanese economist who recently stepped down as deputy secretary-general of Geneva-based IFRC, said aid agencies had asked for satellite images to locate the people, but they had been unsuccessful in finding any large camps.

He said it's possible some of them got into Tunisia with other successful migrants, but he assumes the 30,000 were crammed into the Libyan border offices to be processed and then returned to Tripoli.

"All of them are either Egyptians, Bangladeshis and Africans," he said. "They were taken back to resume their services, because Tripoli used a lot of those people for basic workers, to clean the hospitals, to work... This is the speculation. ... They may not have a choice. They might also have been tempted by more pay."

Osman also said that several thousand more workers are trapped without passports in the no man's land between Libya's borders with Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Niger, Chad and Sudan.

"Like airports in Europe, you arrive in the transit area, and you are not in the country. ... If you don't have papers, then you are stuck," he said. "The Libyan side – they don't care. ... We have a couple of thousand, about 2,000 to 3,000 people, and those are mainly people who have no documents. They have fled, they are scared."

As of Tuesday, 224,661 migrants had reached Libya's borders with Tunisia, Egypt, Niger and Algeria since February 20, according to the latest International Organization for Migration figures provided Tuesday to AP.

Of those, 115,399 reached the Tunisia border; 101,609 got to the Egyptian border, 5,448 went to Algeria; and 2,205 fled to Niger.

Much of the humanitarian aid in Libya is being provided by Red Crescent volunteers who operate in the port city of Benghazi held by rebels, and in the government stronghold of Tripoli, where Osman said relief supplies are running out.

He said some of the refugees and foreign workers streaming across the border at Ras Ajdir, where he had recently returned from, told of seeing Gadhafi's armed soldiers using ambulances as "a tool to enter the hospital" in Tripoli and remove patients to execute them elsewhere.

"We hear from people coming out over the border. They say they have been seeing this happening (regularly)," he said.

"I think they (Gadhafi's soldiers) are doing that (the executions) to stop people and the reports coming out of those places to the external world."

Osman said he heard that people were taken out of Tripoli and executed before foreign reporters arrived as guests of Gadhafi.

"People claimed they collected them, and they took them out. ... They don't kill them on the bed, but they take them with them."

The U.N. refugee agency expressed alarm Tuesday at what it called rising violence by armed Libyans against sub-Saharan Africans, both in the rebel-controlled eastern portions and in Gadhafi's stronghold in the west.

Fear is intense among Africans in Libya because of widespread tales of "African" mercenaries hired to do Gadhafi's killing for him. In some cities, suspected mercenaries have been lynched.

U.N. refugee officials said a group of Sudanese who reached the Egypt border from eastern Libya said armed Libyans were going door to door, forcing sub-Saharan Africans to leave, and 12-year-old Sudanese girl was said to have been raped.

The agency also reported that many people had their documents confiscated or destroyed.

Osman said he saw people with diabetes and heart ailments crossing the Tunisian border, totally exhausted after spending days staggering through the Libyan desert, all the while suffering from hunger, thirst and exposure to the elements.

"They collapsed the moment they come to the border, but they were taken care of," he said Tuesday.

In Zarzis, Tunisia, migrant workers fleeing fighting in Libya have been entering Tunisia at a steady pace of more than 2,000 a day in recent days, an aid official said Tuesday.

Jean Philippe Chauzy of the International Organization for Migration said the influx is lower than last week's peak of over 10,000 a day, but repatriating the stranded laborers remains a challenge.

The new arrivals are taken to a tent camp, about seven kilometers (four miles) from the Tunisian-Libyan border. Currently, there are about 15,000 migrant workers at the camp, including about 13,000 from Bangladesh.

On Tuesday, the repatriation of Bangladeshi workers was to pick up considerably, with more than 2,400 to be taken home on eight flights to Dhaka, Chauzy said. On Wednesday, at least 1,200 Bangladeshi workers will be flown home, he said.

Still, more refugees are arriving at a steady pace, he said. On Saturday, more than 2,000 fled from Libya to Tunisia, on Sunday more than 3,000, and on Monday more than 2,000.

"It's not the 12,000 to 14,000 we had a week ago, but we are still looking at thousands of people coming in," he said. "It's a constant challenge. We evacuate people, but more are coming in. We keep saying that aid agencies, donors, everyone needs to remain focused on this crisis. We are not out of the woods yet. We don't know how many (more) people from Libya will come across the borders."

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Karin Laub in Tunisia contributed to this story.