As 10,000 foreign nationals pack tiny Tripoli airport to escape Libya’s growing crisis, an email seen by Channel 4 News shows the Foreign Office “does not know” how many Britons are in the country.
More than a week after the troubles began in Libya, and after internet access became extremely limited and both landline and mobile phone access were blocked, the British Embassy in Tripoli’s Gareth O’Brien sent an email out to various companies asking how many Britons are still in Libya and their passport details.
On Monday, the Foreign Office said there were an estimated 3,500 Britons in Libya, and only “several hundred” on Tuesday.
Two flights are flying to Tripoli from London’s Gatwick Airport – one was chartered by the Foreign Office, with 221 seats. The other is being paid for by a group of oil firms, with 180 seats on board, Channel 4 News has learned.
The response has been very, very slow in an escalating situation. It is inadequate and a cause for real concern. Mike Gapes
“An FCO charter flight is leaving Gatwick Airport at 1230GMT for Libya. It is scheduled to land at Tripoli Airport later today. We are hopeful that the flight will return to the UK this evening. A second flight will leave the UK as soon as possible. Our embassy in is already in contact with around 300 British nationals in and around Tripoli and giving instructions on how to catch the flight,” a spokesperson said.
William Hague has also said that the frigate HMS Cumberland is being redeployed from the Eastern Mediterranean to waters off the coast of Libya.
Mr Hague added that he will not rule out sending military flights into Libya without permission to evacuate.
“Our preference clearly is for people to be able to leave on commercial flights … or on our specially-arranged charter flights … rather than to send in military flights without permission, which is obviously riskier for the safety of all those involved,” Hague said in a televised statement.
“Although we don’t by any means rule out doing that.“
The Foreign Secretary told Channel 4 News: “We have positioned miltiary aircraft nearer to Libya. One way or another we’ll get people out of Tripoli.”
But Mike Gapes, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, slammed the Government for offering “too little too late.”
He told Channel 4 News: “The response has been very, very slow in an escalating situation. It is inadequate and a cause for real concern. The ship [Cumberland] needs to get to Libya immediately and without hesitation.”
His criticism followed Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander’s, who said the Government seemed to have been “slow off the mark” in responding to the turmoil.
“I welcome the deployment of HMS Cumberland and the sending of a charter plane to Libya to help British nationals there,” he said.
“But it is concerning that it is only getting under way now, as reports suggest some airports are already badly damaged and there have been air space closures.
“William Hague should explain why the Government appears to have been slow off the mark when other countries have already repatriated a large number of their citizens.”
'This is a joke'
A British oil worker told Channel 4 News by email that the Foreign Office's support had been "a joke" and they did not know if they would be able to make it to Tripoli airport.
"We are British nationals here in Libya with our families, we work for a Libyan oil company and the company has said that we should try and get to the airport with enough cash to buy tickets. Also, this is the same message we picked up on the FCO homepage. This is a joke. Where are we going to find this kind of cash to pay for tickets: no banks are open here...
"We have quite frankly just locked ourselves indoors and on our compound there are approximately 12 British nationals all working for the same company. We are concerned and have no idea how to get out.
"The FCO has given us numbers to call. This does not work because we have no phone lines. We have been watching news channels waiting for the British government to advise what we need to do. There are no taxis available and we also do not want to be just sitting in the airport in Tripoli with our families and children because we also hear that no British and BMI flights are taking off or arriving."
Other EU nations began evacuating their nationals as early as last weekend.
The French Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday evening two planes had landed in Tripoli and passengers had started boarding. A third military plane is still in France, on standby waiting to fly to Tripoli on Wednesday if needed.
A Greek cargo ship sailed to Libya to evacuate Greek nationals, the Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday. It will repatriate Greek citizens on Wednesday.
Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Bulgaria, Bosnia and others had all managed to extract some of its nationals from Tripoli and were returning to pick up the rest.
Any other British Nationals wishing to leave on this flight should call the Foreign Office helpline on 020 7008 0000.
@ThomasLydon on Twitter told Channel 4 News his brother had been trapped in Tripoli, but was now on an American ship on its way to Malta. He's not a US citizen, but was advised by the Irish Foreign Office, who "were much better than the FCO".
@HoledupinLibya has not had such luck and remains stuck in Tripoli - he wrote: "I am a British National stranded in Tripoli, holed up, no money, streets are deserted apart from gunmen. Army? Mercenaries?"