Britons return home telling of Libya chaos

Thursday 24 February 2011 15:40

Hundreds of Britons have been evacuated from Libya leaving behind them a country rapidly descending into chaos and violence.

A total of 262 British nationals, many with tales of horror, delay and confusion have now left the country on chartered and military aircraft.

But as Britain's rescue effort is stepped up, there are fears for the 170 or so workers trapped in the desert, amid speculation special forces may be deployed to rescue them.

Some 132 people have already arrived in Malta on board a plane chartered by the Foreign Office, and 79 landed at Gatwick earlier today on a flight organised by BP.

The latest flight, an RAF Hercules, took off from Tripoli airport bound for Malta with 51 British nationals on board this afternoon.

Meanwhile, HMS Cumberland is docked in the city of Benghazi waiting to evacuate at least 70 Britons by sea.

Another 26 British citizens were due to sail from the coastal city aboard a Turkish ferry later today.

The rescue effort continued as Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi again urged his supporters to quell the protesters.

The Foreign office is urging those stranded near Benghazi to make their way to the dock and meet HMS Cumberland, where they can sail free of charge to Malta.

It said in a statement: "We are encouraging British nationals to go to the port. Capacity is several hundred."

The ship will transport passengers to Valetta in Malta.

Foreign Secretary William Hague has said the workers trapped in remote desert camps are his "greatest worry" as they are "scattered about".

Cabinet Minister Jeremy Hunt appeared to confirm that the SAS was on stand-by and could be deployed to help rescue them.

While the Ministry of Defence refused to comment on the movements of the special forces, the Culture Secretary sought to stress the Government's proactive response to events.

Mr Hunt told LBC radio: "The most significant news is the SAS troops that are now ready to spring into action.

"They are obviously thinking very, very carefully about these 170 trapped oil workers and the issue now is how do we deal with people outside Tripoli rather than inside Tripoli."

Prime Minister David Cameron has said he is "extremely sorry" for the slowness of the British rescue effort which yesterday saw a chartered flight delayed for ten hours at Gatwick after breaking down.

In a series of interviews in Oman Mr Cameron said: "What I want to say to those people is I am extremely sorry.

"It is a very difficult picture in Libya. This is not an easy situation.

"We have achieved a lot this morning but we need to do more and we need to do it quickly.

"There is nothing more important than getting British nationals, our own citizens, out of Libya and safely back home.

He added: "There are going to be lessons to be learned from this and we will do everything to deal with the situation on the ground and to learn the lessons from the future."

Mr Hague chaired a meeting of the Government's Cobra emergency committee in Whitehall this morning.

After the meeting, Defence Secretary Liam Fox said flying Britons home was the Government's priority.

"We have used military assets to assist that and make sure we can get more of our citizens out more quickly and that will continue throughout the day," he said.

US President Barack Obama last night condemned Col Gaddafi's violent crackdown as "outrageous" and "unacceptable".

He said he was studying a "full range of options" to pressure the regime to stop attacks against Libyans.

Mr Obama also said he was dispatching Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Geneva for international talks aimed at stopping the violence.

"We strongly condemn the use of violence in Libya," he added.

"The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous, and it is unacceptable. So are threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters and further punish the people of Libya."

His comments came as Col Gaddafi and his loyal supporters battled to keep control of western Libya.

Opposition rebels, supported by defected government troops, consolidated their control of the east of the country and claimed new gains closer to the capital.

In a further development, it was claimed yesterday that Col Gaddafi personally ordered the Lockerbie bombing attack in 1989.

The first tranch of British evacuees landed at Gatwick this morning shortly after 7am. The BP-chartered aircraft had 78 passengers on board.

Those on the flight described "hellish" scenes.

Helena Sheehan, 66, said she had just experienced "some of the worst hours of her life", adding: "Libya is descending into hell."

Jan McKeogh said she had heard of "absolute atrocities" being committed which were too upsetting to describe.

She continued: "Monday night was the turning point for us.

"Chinooks flew over our house and there were machine gun blasts shortly afterwards. It's usually a very, very safe area but there were absolute maniacs over there."

Karen Willoughby, 30, flew in to Gatwick on her way home to Galway, Ireland, with her husband and their seven-month-old son.

She said: "We went to the airport the day before yesterday at 6am and got going at 5am today Libya time.

"I'm glad to be home, it was getting scary. It's just crazy."

HMS Cumberland's departure from Libya will be delayed because of choppy waters, Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said.

The Type 22 frigate docked in the Arab country's second city earlier today to evacuate scores of Britons to the Maltese port of Valetta.

But its voyage has been delayed because of tricky sea conditions.

Mr Burt told Sky News: "The Cumberland has already docked, it's taking passengers on. They won't be going straight away because the sea conditions aren't very nice.

"We want to make sure there's time for everybody in the Benghazi area to get to that ship."

He added: "It's perfectly safe, it's in the harbour.

"Sea conditions aren't very good and are not meant to be for a few hours, so the plan is the ship will stay docked where it is. It won't leave until the sea conditions are a lot better."

He said if the situation deteriorated at the port the ship could sail immediately, adding: "There's no emergency circumstance facing the ship at the moment, but it's ready to move instantly if need be."

HMS Cumberland was due to be heading back to Britain to be decommissioned when it was diverted to the Libyan coast yesterday.

The ship's captain, Lieutenant Commander James Farrant, said: "We had literally just popped out the north end of the Suez Canal when we got the call.

"We had been in the Arabian Gulf on security patrols."

Mr Burt suggested Britons stranded in the desert could be in Libya for several more days.

"It's not possible to say when they will be out," he said.

"Everyone who wants to leave Tripoli or Benghazi should be out within the next day or two.

"That is those who have been in contact with us and those we know about, and that's virtually all of them.

"The others will take slightly longer perhaps, that's what we are working on at the moment."

Another Foreign Office-chartered flight was expected to touch down at Gatwick's South terminal at around 5.50pm.

And a BP-chartered flight was due in at the same terminal at around 5.30pm.

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