In a dramatic rescue, a pair of British military planes plucked about 150 oil workers and others from the desert in eastern Libya and flew them out of the violence-torn country, officials here said Saturday.
The two C-130 Hercules aircraft landed in the desert south of Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, said Liam Fox, Britain’s defense secretary. Waiting on the ground were workers and their dependents, including British and other foreign nationals, who were bundled aboard and taken to safety on the island nation of Malta in the Mediterranean.
The audacious rescue mission, planned and conducted in secret, required the planes to cross into Libyan airspace, presumably without the permission of besieged Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi. A large swath of eastern Libya, including Benghazi, is no longer under Kadafi’s control, having fallen to anti-government protesters during the popular uprising sweeping through the North African nation.
British news reports said the operation was backed by British special forces who had sneaked into Libya several days earlier, fanned into the desert to round up workers at scattered locations and then secured the pickup site, apparently two makeshift airstrips in the desert.
“Things had to be kept quiet. We knew this morning that the military was coming to pick us up, but we [weren’t] allowed to phone home,” one of the rescued oil workers, a Briton identified as Peter Dingle, told BBC Radio from Malta.
Another worker, Patrick Eyles, told the Associated Press that one of the military planes was supposed to carry only about 65 people, but more than twice that number crowded in.
“It was very cramped, but we were just glad to be out of there and getting on the flight,” Eyles said.
The daring mission was reportedly ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government has been criticized as slow and bungling in its efforts to get stranded Britons out of Libya. Cameron said Thursday that he was “incredibly sorry” for his government’s handling of the situation.
British television broadcast images Saturday night of happy reunions between workers and their families after the rescued Britons arrived at London’s Gatwick Airport from Malta. The rescue mission was splashed across the front pages of most of the Sunday newspapers.
The British government also said Saturday that it had shut down its embassy in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. The U.S. and other nations have shuttered their embassies as well.
With parts of eastern Libya having slipped from Kadafi’s grip, lawlessness appears to have taken hold in some areas. Dingle told BBC Radio that though some residents offered help to stranded foreigners, others had gone looting.
A Royal Navy frigate is expected to arrive in Benghazi on Sunday to pick up some of the 300 Britons believed to still be in Libya.
As of Saturday, news services reported, at least 16,000 Chinese, 15,000 Turks and 1,400 Italians had been evacuated, most of whom worked in the construction and oil industries.
And, according to the United Nations, about 22,000 people have fled across the Libyan border to Tunisia and 15,000 into Egypt.