London Gatwick Airport (AFP) Feb 24, 2011
Britain's first rescue flights left Libya and a warship started loading stranded nationals Thursday as Prime Minister David Cameron apologised for the delay in getting them home.
Three flights -- a commercial charter plane, another airliner chartered by the Foreign Office, and a military Hercules transporter -- left Tripoli airport carrying more than 250 people in total, the Foreign Office said.
The Royal Navy's HMS Cumberland frigate also docked in Libya's second city of Benghazi and loaded up more than 100 British nationals to ferry them to the Maltese capital Valetta.
The British government has faced criticism at home for the handling of its response to the unrest, with delays to the flights and a number of oil workers still stranded in Libyan desert camps.
Cameron, who left the Omani capital Muscat after wrapping up a Gulf states tour, said there was "nothing more important than getting these people home."
"I'm extremely sorry because we want to do everything we can to help them leave. It's a very difficult picture in Libya. This is not an easy situation," Cameron told Sky News television.
He added on the BBC: "We'll do everything we can to get those people home and then to learn the lessons if there are better and different ways of doing this."
The first charter plane made it to London Gatwick Airport with 78 adults and one child on board, while the second, carrying 177 adults and four children, touched down at Gatwick at 2011 GMT after stopping off in Malta.
The first flight was chartered by BP, but by the time it reached Tripoli the oil giant had already evacuated its expatriate staff. BP offered the seats to the Foreign Office, who took a rapid deployment team on the outbound flight.
A military C130 Hercules transport plane also left Tripoli on Thursday carrying 51 Britons, 13 others -- and a dog, landing later in Malta, the Foreign Office said. Passengers will join the FCO-chartered flight to London.
"Libya is descending into hell," said passenger Helena Sheehan after landing at Gatwick.
"The airport is like nothing I've ever seen in my whole life," the 66-year-old said. "It's absolute chaos. There's just thousands and thousands of people trying to get out."
Jan McKeogh said she had heard of "absolute atrocities" being committed which were too upsetting to describe.
"Monday night was the turning point for us," she said.
"Chinooks flew over our house and there were machine gun blasts shortly afterwards. It's usually a very, very safe area but there were absolute maniacs over there."
A third charter flight is en route to Libya from Gatwick and a second British Royal Air Force transport plane is on standby in nearby Malta.
The FCO estimates that there are between 200 and 220 British nationals still stranded in the country.
Foreign Secretary William Hague chaired a meeting of Britain's crisis response committee COBRA to formulate plans to evacuate British workers stranded in remote desert camps.
When asked about using special forces, Hague told BBC radio he would "look at every option."
British Airways and British Midland have both cancelled their daily scheduled flights between London Heathrow and Tripoli, though Libyan airline Afriqiyah Airways has maintained services to Gatwick.
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China moves fast on Libya evacuation plans
Beijing (AFP) Feb 24, 2011
China on Thursday ramped up a massive air, sea and land operation to evacuate more than 30,000 citizens from unrest-hit Libya, with a first jet leaving Tripoli and ships with evacuees bound for Greece. Foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said about 4,600 Chinese nationals had so far been evacuated from the oil-rich north African state, where a popular uprising against strongman Moamer Kadha ... read more
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