Gaddafi vows to expel a million

Robert Fisk reports on a threat that could dwarf the Palestinians' plight

Beirut - If the story of Palestine is symbolised by ships - carrying those who wish to live there towards or away from the promised land - then the voyage of the Countess M fitsneatly into the tragic saga.

With 650 Palestinians on board, more than half women and children, the old car ferry was riding the swell five miles off Larnaca last night with its homeless passengers unable to land in Syria but equally unable to return to Libya. As part of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's latest enforced exodus, the last place they were likely to find shelter was the land that their parents and grandparents left in the dying days of the British mandate of Palestine.

To blame for their immediate plight was Colonel Gaddafi, whose promise - to expel a million expatriate workers across the desert if they are not allowed to leave by air - threatens to diminish even the Palestinians' calamity.

The United Nations sanctions committee chairman said last night that the deportation of a million civilians would be a human catastrophe; Colonel Gaddafi, of course, wants UN sanctions on Libya - imposed because of its alleged role in the Lockerbie bombing - lifted so that international air links with Tripoli and Benghazi can be restored.

The victims of the colonel's cynical pragmatism remained uncomplaining on board their ship off Larnaca last night, with the Cypriot port authorities as unwilling to allow them to land as the Syrian immigration officers at Latakia had been a few hours earlier. Driven out of their homes in Libya, the Palestinians in the Countess M were given food and water, while their Greek captain refused to leave Cypriot waters until a port had been found to accept them.

Almost all the refugees hold papers which allow them entry into Syria; their ship had docked in Latakia when immigration authorities decided to sendthem back on to the vessel and refuse them entry. No explanation was forthcoming from Damascus yesterday, although Colonel Gaddafi's simultaneous announcement of the expulsion of a million men may have influenced the Syrians. Why should they, after all, appear to approve of his cruelty by accepting 650 of his victims?

Late last night, the Syrians intimated that they would accept about 500 of the stranded Palestinians who possessed Syrian documents; the Cypriots later suggested they may be flown to Damascus by air. But there was no apparent solution for the 150 or so Palestinians on the boat who held no such papers.

But does the colonel really intend to throw a million people out of Libya? This is the same man who threatened national unity with Egypt and Syria, who predicted the overthrow of the United States, the destruction of Israel and the collapse of the Gulf sheikhdoms, the same man who offered to give his seat on the Arab League to Yitzhak Rabin's government on the grounds that the rest of the Arab world had become allies of Israel. Certainly, Colonel Gaddafi - once one of the most honoured nationalist revolutionaries - is worried about a real revolution, that of the growing Islamist movement which opposes his deeply corrupt regime.

Intelligence sources, quoted in the latest issue of Tres Tres Urgent, the French intelligence community's favourite house magazine, believe he was the target of an assassination attempt in Sirte on 17 September, when two men were reported to have opened fire on the Libyan leader when he stepped out of his armoured Toyota. Both were captured by his bodyguards. The shooting followed at least two clashes in Benghazi between Colonel Gaddafi's security men and Islamist militants.

His suspicion that some of the 500,000 Sudanese living in Libya - none of them holding official work-permits - may have been involved, led almost at once to the expulsion of thousands of members of the expatriate community.

Hundreds of Palestinians were sent to the Egyptian border and 13,000 Sudanese were trucked south.They were expected to arrive at the Sudanese frontier by the end of this week.

The UN has rejected Libya's request to repatriate 1,067,000 "illegal infiltrators" by air. The figure includes not only the half-million Sudanese but 300,000 Chadians, 250,000 from Mali, and others from Nigeria, Niger, Ivory Coast, Benin, Senegal, Ghana, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau.

As for the 650 Palestinians off Cyprus, they were visited by a Palestinian diplomat yesterday, while a pregnant passenger was flown by a British military aircraft to Larnaca hospital for the birth of her child.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links