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Braving shelling, fleeing civilians arrive in Benghazi

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2011-04-27

Civilians fleeing the besieged city of Misrata describe terrifying tales of fighting and destruction, as international aid agencies step up efforts to evacuate residents from what has become a dangerous urban battleground.

Drawn, weary, but visibly relieved, Wagji Zakijundi managed a weak smile as he stepped off the boat that arrived in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi late Tuesday from war-ravaged Misrata.

The 60-year-old Egyptian schoolteacher's journey from his destroyed home near Misrata's main Tripoli Street to the Benghazi-bound boat was perilous until the very end.

As Zakijundi and 630 others were boarding a Red Cross-commissioned boat evacuating civilians Tuesday afternoon, the Misrata port was hit by heavy shelling.

“Misrata is under attack, constant attack, it didn't stop even as we were boarding the ship, rockets were landing right next to the ship and as the ship started to leave, I could hear boom, boom, boom,” said Zakijundi as he stood beside a single suitcase at the Benghazi port.

“Nine Grad rockets, nine Grad rockets,” added his fellow Egyptian friend, Syed Masr, referring to the rockets that narrowly missed the boat as they were boarding.

Speaking to FRANCE 24, a Red Cross volunteer who declined to be named since he was not authorised to speak to the press, said the boat's maximum capacity was 600. “But we took 31 more because we couldn't turn them back, the shelling was so heavy,” he said.

Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, has seen heavy fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi who have besieged the city to the south, east and west. International aid groups are now relying on the city's northern sea-face to ship in humanitarian aid and evacuate stranded civilians.

Tents on fire, missile parts in the sand

But in recent days, the Misrata port area has been hit by shelling, endangering international evacuation missions.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 late Tuesday, Javier Cepero, a spokesman for the ICRC (International Committee for the Red Cross), confirmed that there had been shelling in and around the port, where Red Cross tents were hosting stranded civilians awaiting evacuation. “But,” he added, “I can't say if they were specifically targeted.”

According to a Sunday Times of London correspondent who visited the camp shortly after the shelling, tents were still on fire and missile parts were buried in the sand. At least three people were killed – all from Niger – and 14 were injured.

Libyan crisis displaces half-a-million people

Faced with a humanitarian situation that’s rapidly deteriorating, international aid agencies have stepped up their efforts to evacuate civilians, particularly the most vulnerable.

Civilians fleeing Misrata describe a desperate situation with many recounting terrifying tales of fighting and destruction.

“My house is completely destroyed,” said Zakijundi. “There was constant fighting, all the time. I had no food for seven days and very little water.”

More than half-a-million people, most of them third-country nationals, have fled Libya since the uprising began in February, according to USAID (US Agency for International Development) officials.

Most of them are foreign workers. Libya's eastern and western neighbors - Tunisia and Egypt - are the first stops for fleeing foreign citizens.

Both countries are politically fragile following the recent uprisings earlier this year and are in a period of political transition. Amid fears of further destabilisation by the influx of displaced people, international aid agencies such as UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) have launched evacuation missions to help the migrants reach home and ease the strain on Egypt and Tunisia.

Date created : 2011-04-27

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