Foreign Secretary William Hague says that Britain is to launch an air and sea bid to help evacuate its nationals trapped in Libya as Channel 4 News hears of rising numbers trapped at the airport.
The Government is liaising with airlines to get Britons seats and has chartered a plane to fly to Libya in the next 48 hours. It is seeking permission from the Libyan authorities for landing rights.
The Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland is being sent to international waters near Libya to help with the evacuation if necessary. The Foreign Office told Channel 4 News that its earlier estimate of 3,500 Britons still in Libya was likely to be too high and that the real number was probably several hundred.
Channel 4 News has been told that the number of people waiting in Tripoli airport to get of Libya amid the escalating violence is 5,000 and growing by the hour.
However, all aircraft are currently grounded, the Libyan authorities refusing to grant flight permits to enter or leave the North African country.
As the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi told supporters in Tripoli that he would not leave the country and was prepared to use force to beat the “terrorists” who were fomenting revolt in his country, William Hague called a news conference at the Foreign Office in London to announce his plans to help British nationals still standed in Libya.
“I call on the Libyan authorities to protect the safety of all foreign nationals.” Foreign Secretary William Hague
“The safety of British nationals in Libya is of paramount concern to us,” he said. “In light of the fluid and dangerous situation, we are urgently reinforcing our team on the ground with specialist personnel to provide additional help and assistance to British nationals.”
He said that Britons had already encountered “significant difficulties” and many were at Tripoli airport without immediate flights out of the country.
“We are working closely with airlines to assist as many British national as possible to depart Libya,” he added.
“We are making arrangements for a charter plane to travel to Libya in the next 48 hours. We are urgently seeking landing clearance and permission from the Libyan Government and – in support of this – we will send a rapid team of Foreign Office officials to assist British nationals.”
The Royal Navy frigate, HMS Cumberland, was being redeployed from the eastern Mediterranean to international waters near Libya to be ready to help with the evacuation if necessary.
Mr Hague added: “I call on the Libyan authorities to protect the safety of all foreign nationals and provide necessary assistance to the British Government – including providing the necessary permission and clearance for our ship and aeroplane – in order to allow us to secure the safe departure of our citizens from Libya.”
Mr Hague organised a similar chartered aircraft to be sent to Cairo during the uprising in neighbouring Egypt. There were 2,000 British nationals in Cairo then and commercial flights were running an increased schedule.
Earlier, the Netherlands said it wanted to evacuate its 100 Dutch citizens from Libya, as soon as it is given the green light to land there. It has also sent a navy frigate, the Tromp, to lend support by sea.
Similarly, Italy, with its 1,500 residents in Libya, is to send a C-130 air force plane to evacuate Italian nationals, which is headed for Benghazi.
Greece, Germany, Austria, Portugal and other EU nations are following suit.
While all planes are grounded in Tripoli, a source at the Irish Foreign Office said that the Portuguese had been granted permission to land and leave again with its nationals.
The source told Channel 4 News he did not know why the Portuguese had been successful in their bid to get their nationals out of Tripoli, but said it was possibly because they had put in an application before other countries.
Channel 4 News understands that Libyan nationals will not be allowed to leave the country at all.
One British national who lives in Tripoli and is attempting to leave the country, told Channel 4 News that the UK’s failure before now to announce evacuation efforts was “unbelievably reckless.”
“I’m at the airport. When the Portuguese plane lands, their people will board and go home. When the rest get permission to land, they will go home.
“The British must wait or jostle with everyone else for the commercial flights. There are 5,000 people here. That number will grow and it will not be easy to get a seat.
“This is not Egypt, this is a seriously, seriously dangerous place to be. It feels like a war zone.”
There are also rumours that Benghazi airport runway has been destroyed or at the least, damaged enough to prevent the landing of planes.
Various EU foreign offices confirmed that Benghazi airport is closed and many of their citizens were heading for Tripoli or awaiting evacuation.
Channel 4 News spoke to a UK based Air Charter Service about the current situation in Libya.
Despite William Hague's assurances that an exit strategy is in place to help UK nationals escape Libya, the Air Charter Service believes it could be a very long, and difficult task. The firm are trying to help with the travel of between three and four thousand multi-national residents in Libya. So far they have not succeeded in landing any chartered planes in the Libyan capital. They explained that a total of 457 permits for flights have been registered at Tripoli airport causing a huge backlog. A permit usually takes around 18 hours to obtain for flights into Tripoli, so the large number registered indicates just how long it could take to get people out of the city.
According to the firm only three private French flights have managed to land in addition to two German, all of which have been military planes.
Lufthansa and Alitalia escalated their flights to 350 seater capacity planes for their regular commercial service out of Tripoli but British Airways (B.A.) have not yet taken this action for their service. No B.A. flights left Tripoli on Tuesday whilst the new BMI service to the city was postponed until at least 27 February.
Tripoli is now the only airport in Libya for people to exit the country. The airport is 30 miles from the city and fleeing international residents will have to pass through multiple check points and provide papers for travel. They are also being encouraged to travel to the airport with enough money in cash to buy their way on to the plane.
Benghazi is completely cut off, according to reports, and the charter company explained there was no way of landing at the city airport's runway, believed to have been damaged.
The company are also looking into alternative exit strategies by sea and by air. Negotiations with a shipping company have secured two boats which they intend to ferry people from libya to Malta, and the islands more accessible airport. There are also plans to create convoys over the border to Tunisia. Both plans are riddled with problems however, with the Libyan ports currently all closed and roads across the country carrying significant dangers.
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office can be contacted on 02070081500 from the UK or (021) 3403644/45 from Libya