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One ship sails as U.N. calls for mass evacuation from Libyan borders

By Ivan Watson and Moni Basu, CNN
A man who fled from Libya makes his way Wednesday among scores of tents at a refugee camp in southeastern Tunisia.
A man who fled from Libya makes his way Wednesday among scores of tents at a refugee camp in southeastern Tunisia.
  • A ship set sail from a Tunisian port carrying 1,200 Egyptians
  • But thousands are stranded at Libya's borders
  • The U.N. refugee agency sounds an urgent appeal for help

Zarzis, Tunisia (CNN) -- The ENS Halayab prepared to sail Wednesday from the Tunisian port town of Zarzis, carrying 1,200 Egyptians back home.

They had fled the terror of Moammar Gadhafi's fierce crackdown on protesters in neighboring Libya. Some made dangerous journeys to the border, leaving behind the places that had meant their livelihoods. Some arrived at the border with no money or possessions.

The lucky ones made it to Zarzis. In groups of 20 on Wednesday, this particular group of Egyptian migrant workers -- who had been awaiting passage at a crowded warehouse -- walked the gangplank onto the Halayab.

Port officials said another 1,500 Egyptians had returned home in similar fashion Tuesday.

But a bulk of the 150,000 people the United Nations estimates to have fled the violence in Libya remained at the borders cramped in 1,500 tents set up at a transit center or living out in the open, enduring bitterly cold nights without shelter.

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  • Libya
  • Moammar Gadhafi
  • Tunisia
  • United Nations

U.N. officials fear the crisis could quickly deteriorate.

Hovig Etyemezian, a field officer with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said as many as 15,000 people were crossing the border every day. "And I'm being conservative," he said.

In comparison, only about 3,000 are able to transit out of the border areas daily. The math is not difficult.

"I've heard some news that the outgoing flow will increase," Etyemezian said. "I'll believe it when I see it."

The crisis prompted the the U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration to sound urgent appeals to the international community to help with massive evacuation efforts for the foreigners stuck at Libya's borders with Tunisia and Egypt.

Among them are Bangladeshis, Vietnamese, Thais, Koreans, Malians, Ghanaians and Sudanese who came to Libya seeking better economic outcomes in their lives. Some had their passports confiscated by their employers and lacked proper travel documents. Most did not have enough money with them for the trip home, said the IOM's Mathieu Luciano.

The UNHCR and IOM's joint humanitarian evacuation staffs met in Geneva, Switzerland Wednesday to hash out logistics. The agencies are asking governments to supply planes, boats and expert personnel.

A UNHCR-chartered aircraft was due to fly 177 Egyptians from Tunisia Wednesday, with many more flights planned.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said Tunisia was struggling to cope with the influx -- an estimated 80,000-90,000 people have crossed into the country since February 20.

Among them are more than 3,500 Libyans, but that number could dramatically increase depending on events, Guterres said.

He said his agency was particularly concerned for sub-Saharan Africans who have become especially vulnerable after reports that Gadhafi recruited them as mercenaries.

Actress Angelina Jolie, a goodwil ambassador for the U.N. refugee agency, brought attention to the unfolding crisis on Libya's borders.

"The world needs to address this moment," she said. "We have to give people safe passage, evacuation if needed, and ensure they have asylum. We don't want to look back and find their deaths are on our hands."

Egyptian Mahmoud Abdullah, 29, called Gadhafi a "crazy man." He was turned back by Libyan police twice before he was able to make it across the Tunisian border. He said the police stole his mobile phone and took the 150 dinars ($123) in his pocket. Luckily, they didn't detect the 900 ($739) dinars hidden in his shoe.

In Tunisia, kind people gave him a cell phone and a SIM card, he said. Abdullah called home immediately.

"Daddy," said his daughter. "I don't want you to ever leave home again."

CNN's Ivan Watson reported from Zarzis, Tunisia, and Moni Basu reported from Atlanta.

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