Palestinians' boat ordeal nears end

ROBERT FISK

Beirut

The 10-day odyssey of the Palestinians stranded aboard the Countess M ferryboat after their expulsion from Libya, drew near its close last night as two Syrian vessels - one of them a warship - took all but a handful of the 650 men, women and children from Cyprus to the Syrian port of Lattakia.

Jordan was reported to have agreed to take at least 12 of the remainder, although several Palestinians were said to have smashed up the cafe aboard the ferry boat which brought them from Libya because they feared what would happen to them on their arrival in Syria.

The Countess M, lacking sufficient lifejackets and rafts for its passengers, its deck rails unsafe and its electrical wiring judged insufficient for a seaworthy craft by the Cyprus authorities, was allowed to dock alongside the Syrian ferry boat Fayza Express in Larnaca harbour to transfer its first load of Palestinians. Expelled from their homes and property in Libya - dispossessed as surely as were their fathers and grandfathers by the Israelis - none of the Palestinians will be able to return to Tripoli or Benghazi, even though some had lived there for more than 20 years.

The majority held Syrian resident's documents and greeted the news of their final departure to Syria by singing and banging home-made drums. Many waved Syrian flags. But at least 1,000 other Palestinians are still waiting forlornly on the Libyan-Egyptian border after their expulsion by Colonel Gaddafi - allegedly to demonstrate the futility of the latest PLO-Israeli agreement - and at least one baby is reported to have died in the squalid desert camp on the Libyan side of the frontier.

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