GENEVA: Libyan border crossings were overwhelmed Wednesday by tens of thousands of hungry, fearful people fleeing its burgeoning civil war. Egypt and a handful of European nations launched emergency airlifts and sent ships to handle the chaotic exodus.
UN refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told The Associated Press that over 180,000 refugees have reached the border. Over 77,300 people have crossed east from Libya into Egypt, most of them Egyptians, while a similar number have fled west from Libya into Tunisia, she said. Another 30,000 more were still waiting in Libya at the border, trying to get into Tunisia.
She said Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddafi’s forces appear to be targeting Egyptians and Tunisians, apparently thinking they are the main trigger of the uprising against Qaddafi’s 42-year-old regime. Authoritarian regimes in both neighboring countries have been toppled in the last two months by a wave of popular protests.
"[There are] many, many terrified refugees" in the Libyan capital of Tripoli who are too afraid to move for fear they will be killed, Fleming told the AP.
Some Somali and Eritreans workers around Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city which is now under the control of opposition forces, are also feeling "hunted" as they are being mistaken for mercenaries hired by Qaddafi, she said.
Human Rights Watch warned that fleeing African workers were "particularly under threat due to popular anger" over Qaddafi’s mercenaries.
As border crossings were overwhelmed with mostly young men, UN experts warned that fast action was needed to protect and feed them before a humanitarian crisis or riots broke out.
Angelina Jolie, a UN goodwill ambassador for refugees, appealed Wednesday for all nations to give people safe passage, evacuation if needed, and ensure they have asylum.
"All I’m asking is that civilians be protected, and not targeted or harmed," the actress said. "We don’t want to look back and find their deaths are on our hands."
US Ambassador Betty King in Geneva said the United States is giving $12 million to help with evacuations and "understands the incredible strain such large numbers of people have placed on receiving governments."
UN emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos announced in New York that she has allocated $5 million from the UN emergency response fund to kick-start emergency efforts to help people fleeing the violence, especially along the Libyan-Tunisian border.
Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain began an airlift Wednesday to help Egyptians stranded on the Libyan-Tunisian border get back home. The British planes, departing from Djerba, Tunisia, will help evacuate up to 8,800 Egyptian migrants to Cairo.
"These people shouldn’t be kept in transit camps," Cameron said.
The Egyptian military sent two ships to Tunisia to bring back stranded Egyptians who fled from Libya. Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Abdel-Hakam said more than 103,000 Egyptians home have returned from Libya either through the airports or by land since the political situation deteriorated in Libya, and another 20,000 foreigners have fled into Egypt from Libya.
"Most have been traveling for three or four days. They are walking and have had nothing to eat for up to 48 hours," said World Food Program spokeswoman Abeer Etefa, who was at the border.
"The majority of the people coming across the border are young Tunisian and Egyptian men who were working in Libya. Tens of thousands are coming every day," she said.
Her agency said it launched a $38.7 million emergency operation to bring food to 2.7 million people in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia over the next three months. The first airlift of 80 metric tons of high energy biscuits arrived Monday, while shipments of wheat and wheat flour were being sent to the Tunisian border and to the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Spanish Prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero, visiting Tunisia on Wednesday, told reporters that Spain has already sent a plane with 30 tons of humanitarian aid to the Libyan-Tunisian border and has another plane available.
"We can also make ships available and the foreign ministry is coordinating this with the Tunisian government," Zapatero told reporters.
He said Spain is willing to commit to a €300 million ($414 million) credit line over the next three years to help economic recovery in Tunisia and other North African countries through the EU’s European Investment Bank.
France, too, announced an airlift and naval operation coordinated with the European Union. Large airliners and a French Navy ship were heading to the region to evacuate at least 5,000 Egyptian refugees.
The 57-nation Organization of The Islamic Conference said it would set up two field hospitals and provide ambulances on the Tunisian and Egyptian borders with Libya. It also planned to provide temporary shelters for 10,000 people and hand out flour, sugar, rice, canned food and infant formula.
The International Organization for Migration said it had evacuated 3,850 people from Tunisia by air and sea.
"Every few minutes we learn about more and more groups of migrants either stranded inside Libya or those who arrive at its borders with Egypt, Tunisia and Niger," said the group’s operations director, Mohammed Abdiker. "The scale of this crisis cannot be underestimated."
His organization said thousands of people inside Libya were also preparing to move to Niger as food prices skyrocket and supplies run out, and that two Africans were killed Monday when they left their home to search for food.
Among those stranded at the Tunisian border were Bangladeshi, Vietnamese, Filipinos and Ghanaians, and 2,400 more Africans at Tumo on the Libyan side of the border with Niger. Another 4,000 people, mostly Nigerians, were stranded around the Libyan coastal city of Misrata.
Pope Benedict XVI got a private briefing Wednesday on the refugee crisis from UN World Food Program Director Josette Sheeran, who had just visited the Libyan-Tunisian border.
"It was clear to me as I saw these desperate people pour across the border — more than 2,000 an hour — that the world must act — and must act quickly — to prevent a major humanitarian disaster," Sheeran said.
The international charity Save the Children estimated that 1 million children in western Libya could be in harm’s way as Qaddafi’s forces fight protesters for control of key towns and cities, including Tripoli. –Danica Kirka in London, Angela Charlton in Paris, Sarah El Deeb and Robert Reid in Cairo and Alessandra Rizzo in Rome contributed to this report.