Gaddafi kicks out foreigners

Plight of the Palestinians: As Libya expels thousands, even those who thought they had found a home are locked out

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi yesterday ordered 1,500 Palestinians to leave Libya and seemed set to evict scores of thousands more foreign workers, including 200,000 from Sudan.

Despite Libyan promises to the Arab League to end the expulsions of foreigners, 30 Palestinians were stranded in the desert at Salloum on the Libyan-Egyptian border last night and hundreds more were being rounded up in Tripoli and placed on buses.

Panos Moumtzis, head of foreign relations for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, warned of an impending humanitarian crisis. The expelled Palestinians were living in "appalling conditions ... It's like a rubbish dump," he said.

Egypt has refused to accept expelled Palestinians except those in transit with official papers to Jordan, or to Gaza and the West Bank. Other Arab countries also appear reluctant to take them.

The PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, appealed to Libya to reprieve the refugees, many of whom are long-term residents with responsible jobs in the Libyan oil industry. "I appeal to my brother, the President Muammar, to make the right decision concerning his Palestinian brothers and allow them to return to their places of residence in Libya," he said.

It is now almost a month since Colonel Gaddafi, the oddest and least predictable of Arab leaders, announced that he was ordering up to 25,000 Palestinians out of Libya in protest at the PLO-Israeli peace agreement. Save for Colonel Gaddafi himself and his puppet press and television service, no one seems to believe that his stated reasons for the expulsions are real.

Recent rioting between the police and Islamists in Benghazi, along with difficulties in paying foreign workers in Libya - which remains under UN sanctions for its alleged part in the Lockerbie bombing - are believed to lie behind the evictions.

On the other hand Iraqi sources have indicated that Libya has sent a guest-worker recruiting team to Baghdad to hire more Iraqis to join 65,000 of their fellow-countrymen who are working as teachers and doctors in Libya.

A Libyan border official said Colonel Gaddafi had ordered all Palestinians to pack their bags after Israel and the PLO reached a new deal on Sunday in Egypt to extend self-rule across the West Bank. "On Sunday, authorities sent letters to all the Palestinians in Libya ordering one group to leave the country within 24 hours and the remainder within 48 hours," the official said.

The PLO-Israeli accords offer little hope for the abruptly displaced Palestinians, which may, in part, be the point that the Libyan leader is trying to make. Under the Middle East peace process their fate is not due to be discussed until May 1996. Most expelled Palestinians have gone to the Gaza Strip or Jordan, Mr Moumtzis said. But many are still stuck at borders lacking the right entry papers. Israel is refusing entry to those who cannot prove they have permanent residence in the Gaza Strip. Jordan has set up a camp at its southern port of Aqaba as a "sorting" station.

Many thousands of Sudanese illegal immigrants are also to be deported from Libya. About 15,000 Sudanese are stuck at the Libyan border town of Kufra waiting for transport home.

Mr Moumtzis visited the Libyan-Egyptian border on Monday to distribute food and blankets. He said he saw 12 large tents set up on the Libyan side of the border. "Libya wants to make a camp for them near the border and get them out of the country," he said.

He described conditions on the border as hostile. Swarms of flies and mosquitoes were increasing the risk of illness, and one woman was taken to hospital after being stung by a scorpion. "It's a rubbish dump there. They are scared to sleep at night because of the scorpions; children have diarrhoea, and the women have to wait till darkness to relieve themselves because they are exposed."

Leading article, page 18

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