'Slow' government accused over Tunisia tourists

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The Independent Online

British tourists in Tunisia have been placed in "an alarming position" because the Government was "slow off the mark" to respond to the crisis in the strife-torn North African country, Shadow Foreign Secretary Yvette Cooper said today.

As frightened tourists sheltered in near-deserted resort hotels in Tunisia, Ms Cooper urged British Airways and other carriers to put on extra flights to bring people home.

Speaking in the House of Commons, she also suggested tour companies improved their refund policy in respect of Tunisia trips.

Ms Cooper said the Foreign Office had been slow to change its travel advice and that British tourists had been told it was not necessary to leave, only to hear from their tour company that they were being brought home.

"The Government has been slow off the mark," she added.

But in a statement to the Commons, Foreign Office Minister David Lidington said most of the British tourists remaining in Tunisia did not wish to leave and those who had wanted to go home had been able to "leave swiftly".

He said the Government "had not been lax" in the way Ms Cooper had described and that the Government would "look at any lessons that needed to be learnt".

As Tunisia's interim leaders announced a new national unity Government after the overthrow of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Mr Lidington said that there were now about 1,000 British nationals remaining in Tunisia.

He said that there had been around 5,000 Britons in Tunisia last week, with most of them tourists on package holidays. More than 3,000 had since left.

Mr Lidington said there was "no indication" that Britons were being targeted by rioters or looters but that there was "always a chance" that tourists could get caught up in trouble.

He said anyone concerned about their safety should remain within their accommodation.

Mr Lidington said he would welcome any extra flights that BA or other carriers could put on but that extra flights and compensation were "commercial matters" for airlines and travel companies.

BA operated its normal Monday service between Tunis and Gatwick today. But for those not able to get on that flight, the next BA flight is not until Wednesday.

Robert Jenkins, staying in the resort of Hammamet with his wife, was critical of BA for allowing his flight last Friday to leave from Gatwick.

Mr Jenkins, 51, from Fetcham in Surrey, said: "I can't believe that BA allowed the flight to take off when they knew the Foreign Office had advised against non-essential travel to Tunisia.

"We hadn't seen the news and the warning was not mentioned when we checked in or when we boarded."

Mr Jenkins is in Hammamet with his brother Richard, 59, and sister-in-law Veronica, 61.

Richard Jenkins, a court usher from Byfleet, Surrey, said: "We haven't even been out of the front door, we are so scared. Our three daughters are really worried. They just want us back as quickly as possible."

The Jenkins were the only people left in their hotel, as were four women from north London who are staying in a nearby Hammamet hotel.

One of the women, nurse Shefali Khan, 27, said: "We are scared for our lives and we have been on to BA explaining that we are four girls and we want to go home but they are saying there is nothing they can do.

"We offered to upgrade and pay more for business tickets but they said there was no room."

Her sister Shelina Begum, 24, said: "This was supposed to be a holiday for my birthday but it's turned into a nightmare. I just want to go home.

"We are running out of money and our phones have no credit left because we have spent it all calling BA asking them to help us. We are four girls out here and there are people running around with guns as well as prisoners who have been released and they are all out robbing people and, for all we know, raping girls."

BA said tonight that it did not plan to put on any extra flights tomorrow and that there was still availability on its next flight from Tunis to Gatwick which is due to arrive at the West Sussex airport on Wednesday afternoon.

BA added: "We are monitoring the situation in Tunisia carefully. We continue to operate flights to and from Tunis to help as many of our customers as possible. We would not operate a service unless we were confident that it was safe to do so.

"Customers who are booked to travel to or from Tunis in the next 72 hours can claim a full refund, rebook to a different date or to an alternative destination."