UK launches Libya refugee airlift

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Two relief flights set off from the the UK today to help airlift thousands of refugees stranded on the Libyan border in the wake of dictator Muammar Gaddafi's brutal crackdown on protests in the country.

The commercially chartered passenger airliners, which departed from East Midlands and Stansted airports, will arrive later this afternoon in the Tunisian town of Djerba, where they will be joined by a third plane flying in from Italy.

The three aircraft have been chartered by the UK Government to help evacuate up to 6,000 stranded people, mainly Egyptian workers who have fled over the border from Libya and are unable to return home to their families.

The move follows an appeal by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for an international airlift to prevent a "humanitarian crisis" in the makeshift camps where the refugees are housed.

Some 85,000 people have crossed the border so far without the means to travel on to their homes, thousands are still sleeping in the open and some have no food or clean water.

The UK-chartered planes will fly in rotation to carry Egyptian nationals to Cairo, where they will be met by officials of their home country.

Meanwhile, the Department for International Development has already flown 36,000 blankets and tents for 1,500 people in Tunisia. Officials said DFID remains in close contact with the UN and others to get more relief supplies in and people out.

Plans for the evacuation flights were announced by Prime Minister David Cameron, who told the House of Commons: "These people shouldn't be kept in transit camps if it is possible to take them back to their home.

"We will go on doing everything we can to ease the problems at the border and make sure this emergency doesn't turn into a crisis."

The PM added that the Royal Navy Type 42 destroyer HMS York, currently in the rebel-held port of Benghazi in eastern Libya, would also be available to assist with the relief operation.

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said: "There is a real danger that without urgent assistance the humanitarian situation on the Libyan border will deteriorate rapidly.

"We are deeply concerned that the large number of migrant workers fleeing Libya lack even basic shelter and face a shortage of food and clean water.

"We must act now to stop the situation deteriorating. Our evacuation flights are vital if we are to stop this humanitarian emergency from becoming a crisis.

"We call on others from the international community to follow our lead and help get these people out of the desperate situation they are in and home to their families."

The plane flying from the East Midlands is an Airbus A321 chartered from Thomas Cook, while the jet leaving Stansted is a Boeing 757-200 operated by Titan Airways and the later flight from the Italian city of Verona will be an Air Italia 757-200. Each of the planes can carry around 200-220 passengers at a time.

Speaking at Prime Minister Questions today, Mr Cameron said that British military commanders would continue planning for the imposition of a possible no-fly zone over Libya - despite the lukewarm response of other countries.

"I do think it is the job of leaders in the western world in particular to prepare for all eventualities and all the things that might happen particularly if Col Gaddafi unleashes things on his own people," he said.

Officials confirmed that they were aware the regime had retained stockpiles of mustard gas, although it was not thought that they had been weaponised and it was not known whether they were in government-controlled territory.

Earlier, Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader and high representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, warned that a UN Security Council resolution would be needed before a no-fly zone could be imposed.

"Making contingencies for a no-fly zone is absolutely right, absolutely proper. That doesn't mean to say it's right now," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"In my view, this can't be done without a UN Security Council resolution."

His comments came after Foreign Secretary William Hague indicated that it could be possible to go ahead with a no-fly zone without the mandate of a Security Council resolution.

"There have been occasions in the past when such a no-fly zone has had clear, legal, international justification even without a Security Council resolution," he told the BBC. "It depends on the situation on the ground."

However, there appeared to be little enthusiasm for the idea in the United States - which would have to be a key element in any force to enforce a no-fly zone.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates pointed out that there was currently no authorisation for the use of military force under existing Security Council resolutions.

"The UN Security Council resolution provides no authorisation for the use of armed force, there is no unanimity within Nato for the use of armed force, and the kinds of options that have been talked about have their own consequences and second order effects, so they needed to be considered very carefully," he said.

France has also said that a no-fly zone would need to be sanctioned by the Security Council, while Russia has indicated that it could use its veto to block any such resolution, describing it as "superfluous".

Senior Tory MP Bernard Jenkin - a former shadow defence secretary - questioned Mr Cameron's decision to publicly air the possibility of a no-fly zone earlier this week.

"I think David Cameron's right to float the idea. Whether he was right to float it as publicly as he did on Monday is another matter," Mr Jenkin told BBC Radio 4's The World At One.

"Clearly the rug's slightly been pulled from under his feet - but I do regard this as a matter of international leadership at a time when America, under (US Secretary of State Hillary) Clinton, is obviously very, very hesitant about this kind of thing."

Mr Jenkin, a former shadow defence secretary, said the announcement of Armed Forces redundancies announced yesterday was "extremely unfortunate" given the circumstances.

Shadow defence secretary Douglas Alexander said: "What we are seeing again this week, as we saw last week, is a striking lack of steadiness and I think that's a cause for concern."

Foreign Secretary William Hague will hold talks on Libya and the Middle East with his French counterpart Alain Juppe in Paris tomorrow, said Downing Street.

Mr Cameron spoke with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday, when they agreed that British and French experts should work together on the issue ahead of next week's European Council summit.