The torrent of refugees fleeing Libya has suddenly slowed, as heavily armed forces loyal to strongman Moammar Gadhafi rushed to sow violence and fear at the country's borders, U.N. refugee officials said Friday.
More than 200,000 people have fled to Libya's borders with Tunisia, Egypt and Niger since February 15, when the uprising against Gadhafi's iron-fisted rule began. But now refugees are reporting robberies, intimidation and violence from loyalist forces.
From those that did manage to cross the border, we have heard that mobile phones and cameras were being confiscated en route. Many people appear to be frightened and are unwilling to speak, U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told reporters in Geneva. They feel hunted and targeted.
In the past few days, about 10,000 to 15,000 people were making it over the Tunisian border. But increasingly, many of the remaining tens of thousands of foreign workers who hope to get out of the country are staying put, she said.
"The security situation in Libya may be preventing people from fleeing," she said. "If [the Libyan] military control of the border and roads reduces, a huge exodus of people could resume."
U.N. satellites were monitoring the exodus. An estimated 15,000 to 18,000 people were still in transit camps in Tunisia. The U.N. plans to establish a second camp in Tunisia, like Ras Adjir, close to the Tunisian-Libyan border.
At least 6,000 Bangladeshi migrants arrived at Ras Adjir on Friday, along with 350 Pakistanis and 150 Vietnamese migrants.
Some African migrants crossing the border had bitter tales of targeted treatment in Libya, both by loyalist forces and by rebels who feared they were African mercenaries hired by Gadhafi to defend his 42-year-old regime. Some Eritreans told of being stopped 20 times, their money and all belongings taken.
At another Egyptian border crossing, 40 West Africans had an unusual escape.
Fearing for their lives, given the targeting of sub-Saharan Africans and desperate to leave Libya, they had paid a human smuggler to take them to Egypt in a sealed and refrigerated truck, said Jemini Pandya, an International Organization for Migration spokeswoman.
In Tunisia itself, evacuations picked up for Egyptians and other foreigners. British, French and U.N. planes were taking turns getting Egyptian workers to Cairo. France was preparing to evacuate 5,000 Egyptians who arrived in Tunisia by air and boat back home.
Egypt itself has repatriated tens of thousands of citizens.
The International Organization for Migration was organizing two flights Friday to take the increasing number of Bangladeshis arriving in the Tunisian capital of Tunis back to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. One of its ships also arrived in the Egyptian port of Alexandria on Friday, carrying 1,450 Egyptian migrant workers from Sfax in Tunisia.
The U.N. was also evacuating 3,100 Egyptians from the Tunisian port of Djerba to Cairo.
In Libya, two more flights were planned Friday to start evacuating 10,000 trapped Bangladeshis back home.
A team of U.N. refugee workers set up a camp in the rebel-held Libyan port of Benghazi for 8,000 people awaiting evacuation. But some 305 Eritreans, 191 Ethiopians and 153 Somalis, most of them young men, repeatedly refused evacuation, apparently letting others who felt more threatened - such as sub-Saharan Africans mistaken for mercenaries - leave the port first.
Nations around the world were sending the U.N. tens of millions of dollars to ease the Libyan refugee crisis. Millions of more dollars were flowing to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental agency, to help migrant workers.
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