US steps up Libya refugee efforts

US steps up Libya refugee efforts

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Tunisian soldiers stand guard as Bangladeshi workers fleeing Libya walk with their belongings down a road (AP)

The US has stepped up efforts to repatriate foreigners fleeing Libya, sending four military planes to pick up Egyptians who crossed the border into Tunisia and fly them to Cairo.

Two Marine KC-130 aircraft left Djerba, Tunisia, with 132 Egyptians, and two Air Force C-130s were on their way to Tunisia to evacuate more, the US State Department said.

The government also said it was contributing £1.8 million to the International Organisation for Migration to help repatriate thousands of foreign nationals who crossed into Tunisia to escape clashes between the government of Muammar Gaddafi and the insurrection against him.

The announcement was the latest in a series of relief flights. On Friday, the US sent two cargo planes into Tunisia with supplies for refugees from Libya.

In Canada, meanwhile, the government said a military flight was able to evacuate more Canadians and other foreign nationals from Libya on Saturday. A spokesman for defence minister Peter MacKay said the Canadian Forces plane flew in from Malta and landed “without incident”.

Gaddafi loyalists swept into the opposition-held city closest to Tripoli on Saturday, tightening security around the regime-held capital. To the east, rebel forces captured a key oil port as the country veered towards civil war.

The contrasting fortunes of the two warring sides suggest that the conflict in Libya could last for weeks and maybe months, with neither side mustering enough military power to decisively defeat the other. The government is fighting fiercely to maintain its hold in Tripoli and surrounding areas and the rebels are pushing their front westward from their eastern stronghold.

Gaddafi, who has led the country virtually unchecked for four decades, has unleashed a violent crackdown against those seeking to oust him, drawing international condemnation and sanctions. Hundreds have been killed, perhaps more, putting pressure on the international community to do more to stop the crackdown on protests that began on February 15, inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, its neighbours to the east and west respectively.

US president Barack Obama has insisted that Gaddafi must leave and said his administration was considering a full range of options, including the imposition of a “no-fly” zone over Libya.

So far, Gaddafi has had little success in taking back territory, with the entire eastern half of the country and some cities near the capital under rebel control. But the opposition forces have had limited success in marching on pro-Gaddafi areas, leading to a stand-off that could last for weeks and maybe months, with neither side mustering enough military power to decisively defeat the other.

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