22 Feb 2011

Libya: violence rages on as 5,000 stranded in airport

Muammar Gaddafi appears on Libyan state television to deny rumours he has fled the country, while 5,000 wait at Tripoli airport to leave. No planes are running, Channel 4 News understands.

In his bizarre first television address since the uprising began, Colonel Gaddafi made a 22-second statement while holding an umbrella and sitting in a vehicle.

He denied reports that he has fled to Venezuela, ruled by his ally President Hugo Chavez.

“I want to show that I’m in Tripoli and not in Venezuela. Do not believe the channels belonging to stray dogs,” said Gaddafi.

“I wanted to say something to the youths at Green Square [in Tripoli] and stay up late with them but it started raining. Thank God, it’s a good thing,”

It is believed that Gaddafi could in fact be in Sirt, his home town where he predominantly resides.

“Do not believe the channels belonging to stray dogs.” Colonel Gaddafi

Venezuela’s Information Minister and its Deputy Foreign Minister earlier rubbished claims made by Britain’s Foreign Minister William Hague that Colonel Gaddafi was heading to Venezuela.

Foreigners stranded

Channel 4 News has been told that there are at least 5,000 people – the overwhelming majority of which are foreign nationals – waiting at Tripoli airport to leave the country. But all aircraft are currently grounded.

There are 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.

Britain remains one of the few only countries with a significant number of expatriates still in Libya (around 3,000) which has has yet to announce plans to evacuate its citizens. A spokeswoman from the Foreign Office told Channel 4 News that there are currently no plans to charter planes and extract British nationals there.

By contrast, William Hague organised for a chartered aircraft to be sent to Cairo during the uprising in neighbouring Egypt. There were only 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 and is headed for Benghazi.

Greece, Germans, Austraia, 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.

Channel 4 News understands that Libyan nationals will not be allowed to leave 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 so far 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 eveyone 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.

“I’m not just disappointed with the Government for not coming to get us, I’m horrified. Do they not see what is going on here? This is not Egypt, this is a seriously, seriously dangerous to be. It feels like a war zone. It’s unbelievably reckless of that the Government are not getting us out: they got people out of Egypt.”

Arab Revolt: Middle East uprising

On Monday, two Libyan Air Force colonels landed their jet fighters in neighouring Malta just before the bombing of civilians started.

The Mirage F1s had requested to land due to fuel shortage, with unverified reports claiming the pilots had asked for political asylum; the suggestion being that they were unwilling to fire on their own people.

And on Tuesday morning, the Malta Star reported that two helicopters landed in Malta carrying people fleeing Libya.

Reports emerged that those in the Air Force who did not defect remained and carried out orders to shoot and bomb protesters in the suburbs of Tripoli, where crowds were massing.

With few independent journalists in the country – although with many international reporters on the borders – the accuracy of such stories are difficult to ascertain.

And although Tripoli has been the focus of international media attention in the last couple of days, those expatriates returning from the eastern city of Benghazi, where the revolt initially broke out, spoke of witnessing horrors that the Tripoli residents did not.

Twitter rumours

Twitter continues to be rife with accounts of grevious human rights abuses and descriptions of mass deaths, including one that more than 100 bodies of soldiers who refused to follow orders had been found in a mass grave in Benghazi.

Again, the report cannot be verified: a sign that Gaddafi’s rigid censorship is working against him, wherever he is.

Meanwhile, the Arab League is holding an emergency meeting in Cairo for delegates to discuss the Libyan crisis.

The League’s Secretary-General Amr Moussa has expressed deep concern over the situation, urging an immediate halt to violence and called for talks, not confrontation.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accused Libya of firing on civilians “from warplanes and helicopters”.

Ambassador to US quits

Libya’s ambassador to the US had denounced Gaddafi and called on Washington to speak in defence of the Libyan people.

Ambassador Ali Aujali said that he no longer represents his country’s government and called on Gaddafi to step aside to avoid further bloodshed.

“I need the United States to raise their voice very strongly. This regime is shaking and this is the time to get rid of it,” Aujali said, referring to expected U.N. Security Council deliberations about the crisis in Libya.

“Please, please, help the Libyan people. Help them. They are burning,” he added. “We need the world to stand up by us.”

“I resign from serving the current dictatorship regime. But I will never resign from serving our people until their voices reach the whole world, until their goals are achieved,” he added.