Foreigners flee Cairo, describe Chaos at airport

Thousands of foreigners have fled the unrest in Egypt, boarding special flights home or to nearby Mediterranean airports, many still in shock as the chaos of last week spread to airport lounges.

Updated: Feb 01, 2011, 16:01 PM IST

Frankfurt: Thousands of foreigners have fled the unrest in Egypt, boarding special flights home or to nearby Mediterranean airports, many still in shock as the chaos of last week spread to airport lounges.

"People holding tickets had difficulties getting on the plane, because the airport in Cairo is pure chaos," Canadian tourist Tristin Hutton said Tuesday, after his plane landed at Germany`s Frankfurt airport.

"The terminals are full of panicking people. The ground staff is disappearing, and at the gate, just before entering, we all together had to collect USD 2,000 for a policeman at the door... He would not let us pass without paying," added the 44-year-old.

"We did not see the protests coming. All of us have been surprised," said Brian Johnson, the deputy head of the Canadian International School in the Egyptian capital, who left Egypt along with 34 of his colleagues.

As countries scrambled to send in planes to fly their citizens out on Monday, nerves and shouting and shoving matches erupted as passengers crammed into Cairo airport`s new Terminal 3 seeking a flight home.

"It`s an absolute zoo, what a mess," said Justine Khanzadian, 23, a graduate student from the American University of Cairo. "I decided to leave because of the protests, the government here is just not stable enough to stay."

Making matters worse, check-in counters were poorly staffed because many EgyptAir employees had been unable to get to work due to a 3.00 pm to 8.00 am curfew and traffic breakdowns across the Egyptian capital.

The US State Department said it has evacuated more than 1,200 Americans aboard government-chartered planes and expects to fly out roughly 1,400 more in the coming days.

State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said by the end of Monday six planes had flown nine flights ferrying US citizens from Cairo to Larnaca, Cyprus; Athens, Greece; and Istanbul, Turkey.

New York-based Pamela Huyser, who had traveled to Egypt for a conference, arrived in Larnaca, late Monday. She described the violent scene she witnessed from her ninth-floor hotel balcony in Cairo.

"You cannot even believe what we saw," she said. "We saw people looting, we saw gunfire, people shooting other people. A lot of people working in our hotel, they came out with sticks and knives and bats and they protected us from getting looted."

Earlier, a US military plane landed in Lanarca with 42 people — mostly staff at US embassies in Africa and elsewhere who had also traveled to Egypt for a conference.

Additional flights were also being arranged in Turkey and neighbor Greece, where authorities announced plans to increase coast guard patrols to deter immigrants from troubled north African countries from reaching the European Union member.

Greek oil worker Markos Loukogiannakis, who arrived in Athens on a flight carrying 181 passengers including 65 US citizens, said confusion reigned at Cairo airport and travelers had to negotiate a string of checkpoints just to get there.

"In a 22-kilometer (14-mile) route from our suburb to the airport we had to get through 19 checkpoints, including nine manned by civilians," he said. "There were lots of people gathering at the airport and it was very difficult to get in."

He said security had deteriorated sharply over the past three days in Cairo after police withdrew from the streets.

In a geopolitical shift, even Iraq decided it would evacuate its citizens, sending three planes to Egypt — including the Prime Minister`s plane — to bring home for free those who wish to return. Thousands of Iraqis had once fled to Egypt to escape the violence in their own country.

One big question is what to do with the tens of thousands of tourists in other parts of Egypt. Tour operators say they will fly home all their customers this week when their holidays end, or on extra flights, stressing there has not been any unrest in Red Sea resort cities like Hurghada or Sharm el-Sheik. Still, food shortages continue to be felt at some Egyptian resorts and some restaurants were refusing to serve foreigners.

Bureau Report