Refugees tell of Gaddafi's vendetta

Plight of the Palestinians: Exiles driven out by Libyan leader attempt a perilous desert journey back to Gaza

Palestinian refugees from Libya arriving in Gaza yesterday told how Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, had put continuous pressure on them during the past year, forcing them out of their jobs and preventing them from buying food from state shops.

"In the last 12 months Gaddafi decided to dismiss all Palestinians in Libya," said Khadija Musleh, a teacher, as she arrived at the checkpoint between Israel and Gaza after nine years in Libya. "All the teachers lost their jobs and only medical doctors could work. Gaddafi might fire them also."

Mrs Musleh said her husband worked as a doctor but the Libyan government had brought in Indian and other foreigners to replace Palestinians. "There was little water or food on the Libyan-Egyptian border and we had to use our clothes as tents. Some Egyptians who work on the border smuggled food to us."

Yesterday about 1,500 Palestinians ordered out of Libya by Colonel Gaddafi's government were believed to be heading towards a makeshift camp on the border with Egypt, a United Nations official said in Cairo. This was confirmed by refugees arriving in Gaza.

However, Libya denied it had given a general order for the 30,000 Palestinians in the country to leave as a protest against the Israel-PLO deal. Some 171 Palestinians arrived in Gaza after a roundabout journey in which they travelled overland from Soloum, on the Egyptian border, to the Red Sea and on to the Jordanian port of Aqaba. They then crossed from Jordan to Israel on the way to Gaza. They said the Jordanian police had treated them well, but complained that in Egypt soldiers had refused to let a woman bitten by a scorpion go to hospital.

Sadika Hussein said: "We've been in the desert for a month with seven children. This was after 17 years in Libya with my husband, who is a teacher whom they fired last year." Like many others arriving at Erez yesterday, she said she was frightened of losing her Gaza identity papers and becoming completely stateless. Many of the Palestinians are professionals who have worked in Libya for many years as accountants, teachers and doctors.

Many families complained that they were forced to split up because they had different identity papers. Wisam Ismail, a student at a Libyan university, said she had been forced to come back because her father could not get back to Libya in June after leaving the country for a holiday.

Many of those arriving at Erez appeared nervous of criticising Colonel Gaddafi because they still had relatives in Libya.

Panos Moumtzis, in the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Cairo, said his information on the expulsion of the 1,500 Palestinians came from sources inside Libya. He also said his agency has been asked to help Palestinians at the border. "The Libyan government has asked us to help set up tents at the border. We don't want to be party to any political game, but if people are dumped, we will have to help."

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