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U.S. aircraft to help return Egyptians fleeing Libya

By the CNN Wire Staff

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Refugees flee Libya for Tunisia
  • U.N. warns of "urgent" humanitarian needs
  • French charters join airlift from Tunisia
  • The border with Tunisia has been chaotic as people clamor to get out of Libya
  • Many are foreign workers who have little money and lack passports

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Djerba, Tunisia (CNN) -- President Barack Obama said Thursday he approved the use of U.S. military aircraft to help return to Egypt those Egyptian citizens who have fled to Tunisia to escape unrest in neighboring Libya as the United Nations called for stepped-up aid to refugees.

Nearly 180,000 people, mainly foreign workers, have fled to the neighboring nations of Tunisia and Egypt amid fighting between government troops and rebels pushing to oust longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi, the U.N. refugee agency reported. About 95,000 people have crossed into Tunisia and another 83,000 into Egypt, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimated.

But it was the would-be migrants stuck in Libya that was most concerning to Abeer Etefa, who on the Tunisian side of the border with Libya. "We're worried about people on the other side of the border," said the spokeswoman for the U.N.'s World Food Programme. "We're calling for humanitarian safe passage to deliver food inside to people in Tripoli and elsewhere." She said she had heard stories from recent arrivals of food shortages "in many places of Libya."

She praised the efforts of Tunisians along the border, but said their generosity had limits. "They've provided all they could," she said, adding that they "can't continue."

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In Washington, Obama told reporters that he also authorized the U.S. Agency for International Development to charter additional planes "to help people from other countries find their way home."

"Tens of thousands of people from many different countries are fleeing Libya, and we commend the governments of Tunisia and Egypt for their response, even as they go through their own political transitions," Obama said.

Zuheir Badr El-Din, the top airport official in the Tunisian city of Djerba, told CNN that France plans to fly chartered jets between that coastal city and Cairo six times a day for five days.

Chaos has reigned on the Tunisian border for days as thousands have clamored to get out of Libya, and many have found themselves trapped in a no-man's land between the two countries. Thousands more were housed in tents provided by UNHCR and the Tunisian military, and many have little money and no travel documents with them.

In Djerba, about 90 km (55 miles) from the border, hundreds of refugees waited Thursday for flights out. Some napped on the floor; others sat up against the walls waiting. But the process appeared orderly, given the number of would-be passengers, as airport officials moved them along in orderly lines with no pushing or shoving.

The majority carried only small bags containing the bare necessities that they managed to escape with. One elderly man's luggage consisted of a tightly wrapped blanket -- the only possession that survived his journey out of Libya.

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  • Libya
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Earlier Thursday, UNHCR sounded an urgent appeal to governments to help in the mass evacuation required to get people out. And after a call among Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and representatives of Middle Eastern, European and U.N. organizations, the world body called for help to avert a humanitarian disaster.

"There is a strong need for urgent relief -- food, water, sanitation and shelter to the thousands on both sides of the Tunisian and Egyptian borders due to significant population movements, mainly of migrant workers," a U.N. statement warned. "It is also necessary to prepare for a further possible escalation of humanitarian needs should conditions deteriorate inside Libya."

The participants in Thursday's talks, which included the Arab League, the European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, urged Libya to allow "immediate and unimpeded access" to determine what was needed.

"The situation here remains tense," said Firas Kayal, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency on the Tunisian border. "There is lots of congestion on this side of the border and we are hearing that many thousands are waiting on the Libyan side to come through.

Village bakeries have increased production to feed the stranded, he said.

"The local community has been so generous in providing food, medicines and places to stay, but the capacity of the local community is reaching its limit because the numbers are so huge," he said.

The refugees include Bangladeshis, Vietnamese, Thais, Koreans, Malians, Ghanaians and Sudanese who had entered Libya seeking work. But most of the workers are Egyptian citizens, and that country's caretaker government has paid for flights from Djerba to Cairo to take them home.

CNN's Raja Razek, Arwa Damon, Ivan Watson and Moni Basu and journalist Catriona Davies contributed to this report.

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