Britain is to help airlift thousands of refugees left stranded on the Libyan border in the wake of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal crackdown, it has been announced.
The first UK flight will leave for neighbouring Tunisia – where an estimated 85,000 mainly migrant workers are trapped – later on Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons.
The move follows an appeal by United Nation’s Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for an international airlift to prevent a “humanitarian crisis” in the makeshift camps where the refugees are currently housed.
Mr Cameron said that the UK flights would be helping Egyptian migrant workers – who make up the bulk of the refugees – to return to their homes. He said that the Royal Navy Type 42 destroyer HMS York, currently in the rebel-held port of Benghazi in eastern Libya, would also be available to assist with the relief operation.
“These people shouldn’t be kept in transit camps if it is possible to take them back to their home,” Mr Cameron said. “We will go on doing everything we can to ease the problems at the border and make sure this emergency doesn’t turn into a crisis.”
Officials said that the UK would be supplying three aircraft for the relief operation, which will be leaving from Stansted and East Midlands airports.
The aim is to pick up refugees from Djerba in Tunisia and fly them to Cairo. Officials indicated that about 6,000 people could be returned on the UK flights.
The Prime Minister said that British military commanders would continue planning for the imposition of a possible no-fly zone – despite the lukewarm response of other countries.
“I do think it is the job of leaders in the western world in particular to prepare for all eventualities and all the things that might happen particularly if Col Gaddafi unleashes things on his own people,” he said.
Officials confirmed that they were aware the regime had retained stockpiles of mustard gas, although it was not thought that they had been weaponised and it was not known whether they were in government-controlled territory.