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UN: Libyan refugee 'crisis' tops 140,000

By JOHN HEILPRIN
The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 7:08 PM

GENEVA -- Violence and chaos in Libya have triggered an exodus of more than 140,000 refugees to Tunisia and Egypt, a U.N. official said, as aid workers warned the situation at the Tunisian border has reached crisis point.

Officials say the situation has been made even more volatile by humanitarian aid workers being blocked from reaching western Libya, patients reportedly being executed in hospitals, or shot by gunmen hiding in ambulances

At the Libya-Tunisian border - where authorities say up to 75,000 people have gathered in just nine days - "the situation is reaching crisis point," U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming warned Tuesday.

She said 14,000 people fled to Tunisia on Monday and another 15,000 are expected to flee Tuesday.

The U.N. is setting up enough tents to hold 12,000 people and plans two more airlifts Thursday to bring in tents and supplies for 10,000 more, but water supplies are "precarious," she warned.

Italy said late Tuesday after an emergency meeting on the Libya crisis that it will send a humanitarian mission to the Tunisian border to assist some 10,000 refugees.

In Egypt, authorities said another 69,000 people have fled into the country from Libya in the past 10 days, most of them Egyptians who have already been taken to other towns and cities.

Thousands of Vietnamese and Bangladeshis at the Libyan side of the border with Tunisia are "in urgent need of food, water and shelter," said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration. Nepalese, Ghanaians and Nigerians are also sleeping unprotected at the borders, she added.

"With thousands of migrants still awaiting authorization to enter Tunisia, there is an urgent need to decongest the border area which lacks adequate facilities to host large numbers of people," IOM's Tunisia mission chief Marc Petzold said.

IOM officials say many thousands of people are also stranded at Libya's Benghazi port in cold weather and with scant supplies of food. The organization said it is trying to arrange evacuation for those people by boat to Alexandria in Egypt.

Thousands of Vietnamese, Egyptians, Indians, Turks, Tunisians, Chinese and Thai laborers are streaming across the border at Ras Adjir, in Tunisia lugging mattresses, blankets, overstuffed duffel bags and suitcases on wheels. Some recount memories of being subjected to mock executions as they knelt in front of the Libyan army, or of hiding in the desert while awaiting rescue.

Fleeing workers were also being targeted by opponents of Gadhafi, mistaking them for mercenaries allegedly being used to quash the rebellion that has swept through large parts of the country, said aid officials speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The Libyan embassy in Vienna - which has turned its back on Gadhafi, as have other delegations in New York and Geneva - described the "repression and premeditated murder of the Libyan population" as "terrible and indescribable."

Embassy staff issued a statement urging Gadhafi to "summon his courage and make public an immediate and determined decision in which he meets the demands of the people to resign to prevent more bloodshed."

Fleming said refugees have described people being targeted and killed, and other said they were trapped, threatened and hunted.

"Others tell us about forced evictions and attacks on their homes," she said

International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Anna Newton said ambulances and hospitals were being "misused" in ways that threatened the lives of people trapped in the unrest.

She said her organization was trying to prevent "credible" but unspecified reports of an undetermined number of patients being executed in Libyan hospitals.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Tuesday urged the U.N. to appoint someone to coordinate efforts in Libya, and serve as the face of the international community there. "We need a U.N. special envoy to and for Libya," he told reporters.

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George Jahn in Vienna and Juergen Baetz in Berlin contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Associated Press