Fears for Libya refugees after numbers drop

A US official said it was important to be ready for any future influx.

Updated: Mar 10, 2011, 11:24 AM IST

Ras Jdir: International officials on Wednesday said they believed it was possible refugees fleeing Libya were being held back due to a sudden drop in the number trying to cross the border into Tunisia.

"Around 3,000 people crossed the border on Tuesday, which is a relatively low figure," compared with the 10,000 refugees that flooded across the border in previous days, said Monji Slim, head of the Red Crescent in Tunisia.

"I believe that it is the policy of the Libyans in order to improve their image.”

"I have heard that satellite images taken by the Americans and the British show concentrations of people on the Libyan side of the border," Slim added.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told reporters in Tunis he had "the same information but no proof" that they were being barred from crossing the border.

Guterres, who with International Organisation for Migration chief William Swing met with the Tunisian interim President and Prime Minister installed after the ouster of veteran ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, said the United Nations desperately needed funds.

The world body "needs USD 160 million in the three coming months to come to the aid of people who have fled Libya for Tunisia, Egypt and Niger," he said.

Swing, who visited the frontier at Ras Jdir and a nearby transit camp with Guterres a day earlier, said repatriation efforts would have to be sped up and the number of flights increased.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Eric Schwartz on a visit to a border camp said it was important to be ready for any future influx.

Asked if he believed refugees were being held back, he said: "We have heard the reports that people may have been prevented from crossing. Those reports are of deep concern to us.”

"We need to be prepared, the numbers have diminished but they could spike again, and we need to be ready for any number of contingency."

Gerard Lautredou, an official with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in North Africa, said from Tunis, citing witnesses, that it was possible that refugees were being held back and were in a camp organised by the Libyans.

The theory, however, was impossible to verify, he said.

But Ali Jhaidi, a Moroccan Army doctor at a transit camp, said: "The refugees are telling us that Libyans are preventing those who are seriously wounded from leaving the country, so that there is no proof."

The US Air Force was due to repatriate some 150 Egyptians who have fled the fighting in Libya and taken refuge in Tunisia, the Pentagon said.

Two C-130 transport aircraft would carry them from the Tunisian island of Djerba later in the day to Cairo with the Egyptians on board, spokesman Colonel David Lapan.

The United States evacuated 640 Egyptians at the weekend aboard four C-130 Hercules planes, but no extra humanitarian aid is planned for the moment.

The fighting in Libya is now in its third week, with rebels seeking to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi facing a huge military onslaught from pro-regime forces.

Bureau Report