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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.