SALLUM, Egypt, March 22 (UNHCR) – Fighting in eastern Libya between pro-government and opposition forces has left thousands of Libyans internally displaced in recent days.
Libyans arriving at Egypt’s Sallum border crossing at the weekend said civilians had been seeking shelter with host families as well as in schools and university buildings. While more than 320,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries to escape the violence in Libya since mid-February, the number of internally displaced is not known. Most of those who have left have been from third countries; only one in eight have been Libyans.
Fighting continues in some areas despite the imposition since Saturday of a United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya, which has seen daily air and missile strikes against military targets in the country. UNHCR talked to people who had seen civilians flee the towns of Ajdabiya, Benghazi, Derna and Tobruk.
Providing humanitarian assistance to the displaced is very challenging, but UNHCR plans to send truckloads of aid tomorrow on a World Food Programme convoy to the opposition-held Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. This will include 5,000 blankets and 5,000 sleeping mats. There are also reported shortages of medical supplies and basic commodities in the east, with prices having risen dramatically.
Libyans arriving at Sallum told UNHCR that they feared reprisal attacks by pro-government supporters in eastern parts of the country. They said people were afraid to go out after four in the afternoon. Some have seen their homes completely destroyed.
One man returned to Ajdabiya over the weekend to find four rockets had flattened his home, forcing him to once again seek refuge in Egypt. Mobile phone networks in eastern Libya have not been working since Thursday, fuelling fears and generating greater uncertainty.
Libyans interviewed in Egypt after fleeing Benghazi estimated that up to 100,000 people had fled the city at the weekend. An engineeer, who drove to Egypt with his three children and a grandchild, said the journey east from Benghazi to Tobruk took 12 hours instead of the normal six because of the press of people offering shelter, food, gasoline and more to those on the road.
“What I saw was really something amazing,” he said.
Those fleeing their homes are mainly Libyans with families. Men insist they want to stay and fight against the forces of Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi. Hundreds of those crossing into Egypt have been put up in the Mediterranean seaport of Marsa Matrouh, some 220 kilometres east of Sallum. Others have travelled to Alexandria and Cairo.
A group of Egyptian volunteers in Marsa Matrouh have been running convoys of aid, including food, clothes and medicine, to towns in eastern Libya in recent weeks. Cafés and bars in Marsa Matrouh have hung out banners welcoming their Libyan “brothers.”
Despite the population movements inside the country, there has been no major flood of people into Egypt, though UNHCR has been making contingency plans for an influx and building up a stockpile of aid inside Egypt.
As of Monday, UNHCR staff were describing the border as being relatively quiet, with an estimated 400 cars arriving during the course of the day. Egyptian authorities told UNHCR that approximately 3,000 people crossed the border on Sunday including 1,560 Libyans and 1,344 Egyptians.
Significant progress has been made with repatriation of third country nationals from the Egyptian border and by the end of yesterday only around 1,700 remained there. Of this number, around 270 are refugees and asylum-seekers, while more than 1,300 are Chadians awaiting onward transportation.
The Egyptian army has set up communal tents to house Libyans who have arrived without proper documentation. UNHCR has offered to set up several portable warehouses in the border area to provide shelter for those waiting for onwards transport or other solutions.
On Monday afternoon, a UNHCR-chartered cargo plane landed in Alexandria in Egypt carrying six portable warehouses, one vehicle and relief items, including plastic sheets, jerry cans, kitchen sets and sleeping mats from UNHCR’s emergency stockpile in Dubai.
Meanwhile on the Tunisian border UNHCR staff continue to hear distant gunfire inside Libya. Libyan pro-government supporters on Monday staged a show of support at the border and UNHCR has noted an increased presence of Libyan military. A number of new arrivals say they have faced intimidation and harassment at checkpoints between Tripoli and the Ras Adjir border crossing. Others have told UNHCR that they were able to leave Libya with little or no interference.
The effort to repatriate people from the Choucha transit camp near the border continues, with the camp population now estimated at 4,700 people. Under an emergency evacuation programme, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have run more than 260 flights to repatriate some 58,200 people from Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria since the start of March. Others have been repatriated by their governments.
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