Libya rescue delays - UK PM sorry

2011-02-24 18:02

Gatwick Airport - Britain's first rescue flights left Tripoli on Thursday as Prime Minister David Cameron apologised for the delay in getting stranded nationals home.

The first charter plane made it to London Gatwick Airport with 78 adults and one child on board, while a second touched down in Malta en route to Gatwick carrying 130 adults and two children.

A military transport plane also left Tripoli on Thursday with 51 Britons and 13 others on board bound for Malta, the Foreign Office said.

Cameron, who is in the Omani capital Muscat wrapping up a Gulf states tour, said there was "nothing more important than getting these people home".

The British government has faced criticism for the handling of its response to the unrest.

"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."

BP offered seats

The first flight back 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.

"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 second British air force transport plane is on standby in nearby Malta.

UK frigate in Benghazi

Meanwhile the navy's HMS Cumberland frigate has docked in Libya's second city of Benghazi preparing to ferry nationals to the Maltese capital Valetta.

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".

A further charter flight was scheduled to leave Gatwick on Thursday for Britons still making their way to Tripoli airport.

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.

Read more on:    bp  |  libya  |  libya protests  |  north africa  |  uprisings
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