DJERBA: A major international operation was under way Thursday to airlift out of Tunisia thousands of people, most of them Egyptians, stranded at the border after fleeing the bloodshed in Libya.
Thousands of people have been bussed to the Djerba airport, where French transport planes equipped with medical teams have arrived to begin airlift operations, officials said.
Others were being transported to the port of Zarzis from where they will be shipped home, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.
"We have 2,000 or 3,000 people who are waiting at the airport but in total there are without doubt 50,000 people, essentially Egyptians, who are waiting in the region to be evacuated," airport director Zouher Badreddine told AFP.
French government spokesman Bernard Valero said France would operate six flights on Thursday — two planes carrying out three return trips.
This should allow a first batch of 1,084 refugees to be flown home on Thursday and a total of 5,000 over the next four days, he said.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it would put on nine flights Thursday with the help of the British government and United Nations and they would carrying nearly 1,700 people from Djerba to Cairo.
About 20,000 refugees were at Tunisia’s main border at Ras Jedir and nearby Choucha by late Wednesday, said Colonel Malik Mihoub, from Tunisian civil security. Thousands more were expected to arrive in the coming days.
Long queues formed at a camp at Choucha, where the Tunisian army had taken in some 15,000 people, as people waited to be taken to the airport or port.
"We’re going to try to keep a balance by moving on 5,000 to 6,000 people a day and taking in 5,000 to 6,000 new refugees a day," camp commander and army doctor Colonel Mohammed Essoussi told AFP.
One of those making the trip Thursday was Ahmadi Bakar, 27, who arrived in Tunisia four days ago with only a plastic bag, having been unable to catch a flight out of Tripoli.
"I am happy, I am going to see my family in Egypt," he said. "Libyan soldiers took everything from me, my phone and my money."
Border officials have said that about 86,500 people have crossed over since February 20, a few days after protests started against Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi. They include around 38,000 Egyptians.
The UN refugees agency launched an joint urgent appeal with the IOM Tuesday for a mass evacuation at the Tunisia-Libya border amid warnings of a looming humanitarian crisis.
Those stuck at the border have had to sleep out in near freezing overnight temperatures, and the UN World Health Organization warned of the danger of epidemics breaking out along the border.
Following the appeal, Europe, the United States and Canada sent planes, ships and funds to help get the migrants home.
Tens of thousands of foreign nationals have already been evacuated by their government from Libya amid a violent crackdown on an anti-regime uprising that began on February 15.
The Djerba airport had received 250 flights since Friday last week to take out 35,000 people, the airport director said.
Most of the thousands stuck at the border were male foreign migrant workers, with 85 percent originating from Egypt, while the others were from as far afield as Bangladesh, China and Vietnam, the UN has said.
France was also sending the second-largest warship in its fleet, the amphibious assault ship Mistral, to take on supplies in the French port of Toulon before sailing on Saturday for the Tunisian city of Zarzis.
From there it will transport Egyptians to Alexandria.
Spain also sent a plane Thursday to ferry aid and help in the airlift, the foreign ministry said.
The plane would carry out three daily flights between Djerba and Cairo to bring Egyptian nationals home, it said. It is expected to transport some 4,000 people over the next week.