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Weather keeps ferry with Americans stuck in Tripoli

Evacuees from Libya arrive at the port of Iraklio city, on the Greek island of Crete, Thursday.
Evacuees from Libya arrive at the port of Iraklio city, on the Greek island of Crete, Thursday.Thanassis Stavrakis / AP
/ Source: news services

A U.S.-chartered ferry to evacuate Americans from Libya was expected to leave Tripoli Friday, weather permitting, the U.S. State Department said.

The Malta-bound Maria Dolores catamaran ferry remained docked at Tripoli's As-shahab port with 285 passengers on board, including 167 U.S. citizens and 118 people of other nationalities, the State Department said.

"The ferry will depart when the weather improves. At the moment, we're anticipating this will happen by tomorrow morning, but we're waiting for an updated weather report," said Elijah Waterman of the U.S. Embassy in Malta.

An official with the ferry company, Virtu Ferries, told The New York Times high winds tossing up sea swells as high as 16 feet kept the ferry at dock.

The ferry was ordered because U.S. government requests to land aircraft to pick up citizens trying to flee Libya's violence had been denied, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley told reporters in Washington. However, a U.S. chartered flight was due to depart Tripoli Friday he said.

As for the ferry, "I'm sure the conditions are difficult for anyone who's on the ship for this long and it hasn't moved," Crowley said.

U.S. security personnel were on board, he said, without identifying who they were or whether they were armed. They did not include Marines, who are often posted at U.S. embassies.

Libyan security forces were controlling the perimeter of the port and had allowed provisions, including fruit, to be loaded on board.

The State Department on Thursday warned U.S. citizens against travel to Libya and urged those already in the country to depart immediately.

Foreigners evacuated
As tens of thousands of foreigners sought to flee fierce fighting in Libya, European countries scrambled to send more ships and military planes to the North African nation and Britain mulled whether to send in its military to rescue stranded oil workers.

Two ships braved churning seas Thursday to whisk some 4,500 Chinese workers away from strife-torn Libya to the island of Crete.

Several airlines suspended flights to Libya on Thursday — Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines and Alitalia — amid scenes of chaos and deteriorating security and safety at Tripoli airport.

Those who made it out described a frightening scene: bodies hanging from electric poles in Libya's eastern port of Benghazi and militia trucks driving around full of dead bodies. One video showed a tank apparently crushing a car with people inside.

The first big group of U.N. workers evacuated from Libya arrived in Rome on Thursday night aboard an Italian C-130 and said the situation in Tripoli was deteriorating.

"We did see much violence, yes, but the city is quiet and calm now," said Ramesh Tuladhar of the U.N. Development Program, who was one of 22 U.N. workers who arrived along with a similar number of Italians at Italy's military Pratica di Mare military base near Rome.

A second C-130 with 97 people aboard arrived from Sabha, mostly with tourists from Italy, France, Germany, Britain and Slovenia.

"All was under control, a very heavy control, under these people from the leader," German tourist Holger Gwosdz said. "Now I'm feeling free. Thank you Italy."

In Crete, some passengers smiled and waved from the decks of the Greek-flagged Hellenic Spirit as it arrived from Benghazi, a city that has broken away from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's control. Others departing the ship needed medical attention.

"The situation was pretty bad over there ... we heard lots of gunfire and saw many burned-out buildings," Pantelis Kimendiadis, a Greek oil worker employed near Benghazi, told The Associated Press moments after stepping off the ferry.

"Everyone is really tired and just glad to be out of there ... We have Libyan friends and colleagues who got us out. Our lives were in their hands," he said.

Up to 15,000 Chinese are expected to arrive by ferry to Crete and fly home on chartered flights — about half the number of Chinese working in Libya on construction and oil projects.

Greece has sent four more ferries to Libya, along with a frigate and three military transport planes, and Prime Minister George Papandreou has offered to help other nations evacuate their people.

Leaving chaos behind
People who managed to flee Tripoli by air described chaos at the airport, with people shoving and climbing over each other to get on planes. Amateur video showed crowds of people jammed shoulder to shoulder, some appearing to be camped out.

"The airport is just a zoo. There's about 10,000 people there, all trying to get out," Ewan Black of Britain told the BBC as he got off a flight at London's Gatwick Airport. "It's just absolutely manic, basically it's uncontrolled."

"I lost all my luggage. It's literally bodies climbing over bodies to get to the door," Black added.

Britain's government discussed whether its military special forces will be needed to rescue U.K. oil workers and colleagues from other nations stranded in Libya's desert camps. Britain's Foreign Office said navy frigate HMS Cumberland, sent to assist with Britons stranded in Libya, had left Benghazi for Malta with 68 British nationals onboard. A flight carrying 177 adults and four children, which left Tripoli this morning, has also landed in London.

Germany rerouted two navy frigates and one support ship to help with evacuations and had two military aircraft on standby Malta, while the Dutch government flew a C-130 military transport plane to Tripoli and was rounding up Dutch citizens to bring home.

India planned to transport 1,200 citizens by ferry to the nearby Egyptian city of Alexandria over the weekend and fly them home.

A Chinese evacuee shows his passport upon his arrival at the port of Iraklio city, on the Greek island of Crete, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011. Two Greek ferries carried some 4,500 Chinese and other nationalities arrived from violence-torn Libya . (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)Thanassis Stavrakis / AP

Turkey managed to evacuate more than 7,000 of its 25,000 citizens in Libya, mostly by two ships that arrived Thursday in the southern Turkish port of Marmaris, and said it would evacuate more foreigners from Libya.

Witnesses said Benghazi, now controlled by anti-government protesters, has seen fierce fighting, looting, and killings.

Ali Tumkaya, the human resources manager for Turkey's Sembol company, which was building a university in Benghazi, said militias raided the Benghazi airport. He saw vans with more than 20 dead bodies, who Tumkaya said appeared to be mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa.

Another Turkish evacuee saw dead men hanging in the street.

"Our construction site was burned down. The looters came. There were a few men hanging from poles, electric poles," Serdar Taskin, who worked for the Mammar Arabia company in Benghazi, told the AP in Marmaris. He did not know if the dead were protesters or Gadhafi supporters.

George Suchomel, a Canadian from Collingwood, Ontario, who works for the German construction company Arcadis, said his company's offices and lodgings in Benghazi were raided and cars and electronic equipment were looted.

Suchomel, who was evacuated by a Turkish ship, gave AP a video that he said was given to him by militiamen in Benghazi to smuggle out. It showed the aftermath of a scene in which a military tank seems to have run over a red car with some people still trapped inside and others running around frantically and shouting.