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Chaos at Cairo airport as foreigners flee Egypt

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 31, 2011; 3:59 PM

CAIRO - Toilets overflowed and convenience stores began running out of snacks at Cairo's international airport early Monday as tourists from around the world besieged terminals in a mad scramble to flee Egypt's growing chaos.

The airport was completely overwhelmed by passengers, many of whom showed up without a reservation after failing to get through to airlines because of the government-orchestrated disruption to Internet and cellphone service. Landlines also have failed frequently over the past several days.

In Washington, the State Department said Monday afternoon that 1,200 Americans have been evacuated so far on government-chartered planes and that about 1,400 others are expected to fly out in the coming days.

With the government blocking the Internet for a fourth day, in a so-far unsuccessful bid to prevent demonstrators from communicating, neither travelers nor hotel concierges could check flight availability. Even if they could, they wouldn't have found much in the way of commercial flights.

After Delta Airlines canceled flights from Egypt to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Americans clamored to get to any European or Middle Eastern capital they could.

As of late Sunday, there wasn't a flight available to Amman, Jordan, for the foreseeable future. Lufthansa, Air France, Kuwait Airways and Egypt Air all had widespread flight cancellations or disruptions.

The United States and several other countries - China, Germany, Great Britain, India, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Turkey and Russia and Canada among them - sent planes to evacuate their citizens.

A U.S. military plane landed at Larnaca Airport in Cyprus on Monday afternoon, ferrying 42 U.S. Embassy officials and their dependents from Egypt, the Associated Press reported.

By the end of Monday, six planes will have flown nine U.S.-chartered flights to carry Americans from Cairo to Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington. He said Frankfurt, Germany, would be added to the list of destinations on Tuesday and that planes would also pick up Americans from the tourist destinations of Aswan and Luxor.

In addition to the chartered flights, a Canadian evacuation flight took out a small numbers of Americans, Crowley said.

At the airport, the departure areas of both Terminals 1 and 3 were suffocating mayhem late Sunday and early Monday, with people and luggage jammed up against one another. It was impossible to reach ticket counters.

Some people simply gave up and waited outside on curbs as they contemplated their next move. There were few, if any, security officers in sight.

At Kuwait Airways' check-in area early Monday, hundreds of people jumped up on counters and yelled when they were told there was no more seats available for outgoing flights.

People refused to budge and, at 4 a.m., were still staying put, with no other option apparent to them. Passengers heaved their luggage over their heads, aimlessly pushing their way through the crowd.

A British tourist and his elderly parents arrived at Cairo's airport at 5 a.m. Sunday for an Egypt Air flight to London that was eventually canceled with no explanation. The tourist managed to book a flight for all three of them to Tel Aviv.

After hours of standing, the man's father fell faint. The man then managed to move the three of them to the front of the line, so they could get their boarding passes and rest. The Tel Aviv flight, which had been scheduled to depart at 10:30 p.m. Sunday, didn't take off until 4:30 a.m. Monday.

Israel's El Al airlines had sent in an extra-large 767 to accommodate passengers, including a Catholic church group of several dozen from Chicago who were touring Alexandria when violent clashes erupted there.

The group had been scheduled to stay in Egypt for another week before returning to the United States. One person in that group likened the departure experience to the 1975 evacuation of Saigon, where he had been at the end of the Vietnam War.

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