As refugees pile up at Libya borders, nations step up humanitarian efforts

The UN will announce a global appeal for humanitarian aid to deal with the Libya crisis on Monday. Planeloads of supplies are on their way to the area, and the international community is coordinating an airlift of refugees.

Emilio Morenatti/AP
Men from Bangladesh, who used to work in Libya but recently fled the unrest, walk with their belongings alongside a road, as they head to a refugee camp after crossing the Tunisia-Libyan border, in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, Friday, March 4.

Proposals for a no-fly zone over Libya took a back seat Friday as the international community turned its focus to humanitarian aid for the thousands of refugees piling up and facing violence along Libyan borders.

As reports filtered out of Libya Friday of refugees being stopped from leaving by armed forces loyal to embattled leader Muammar Qaddafi, humanitarian efforts advanced on a number of fronts:

• The United States Agency for International Development on Friday dispatched two C-130 military-transport planeloads of supplies to Tunisia, where thousands of refugees have arrived in a bid to escape Libya’s turmoil.

• The United Nations will announce a global appeal for humanitarian aid on Monday, after UN emergency-relief officials tour the border and assess the dimensions of the humanitarian crisis over the weekend.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon plans to name in the coming days a special humanitarian envoy for Libya.

• The US will participate beginning Saturday in an internationally coordinated airlift of refugees out of the border areas, officials announced at the Pentagon. An estimated 200,000 foreign workers have fled Libya since the government’s violent repression of anti-Qaddafi protests began last month.

The special UN appeal to be announced Monday in Geneva is intended to address the burgeoning humanitarian crisis on Libya’s borders with Tunisia, Egypt, and Niger, according to UN officials. Most of the Egyptian refugees who fled Libya into Tunisia have been returned to Egypt, the officials say, but they add that thousands of mostly Bangladeshi nationals are still stuck just over the border from Libya in Tunisia, in rapidly deteriorating conditions.

The torrent of refugees fleeing Libya has slowed to a trickle – from nearly 15,000 a day crossing into Tunisia to fewer than 2,000 on Thursday, officials said at a news briefing at the UN in New York, citing the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Anecdotal accounts from refugees making it across the border fueled speculation that heavily armed pro-government soldiers were impeding civilians from leaving the country.

UN officials and representatives of private relief organizations also expressed deepening concerns about living conditions and a worsening scarcity of basic goods in the Qaddafi-controlled western part of Libya. But they said they have little contact with officials and incomplete information on the real needs there.

The humanitarian efforts picked up steam Friday as Western powers mulled their next steps in what looks increasingly like a standoff with Mr. Qaddafi.

President Obama on Thursday said Qaddafi must relinquish power, but he did not go further to suggest whether the US was prepared to help make that happen. He did, however, say he had instructed the Pentagon and the State Department to give him a “range of options” for dealing with Qaddafi.

Over the course of the week, British Prime Minister David Cameron proposed, let drop, and then revived his proposal for a no-fly zone. A number of Western military officials cautioned that declaring a no-fly zone would be tantamount to an act of war – something the West might want to think about twice before doing in yet another Muslim country, some said.

As the international community contemplated its next steps, the Libyan government informed the UN that it was withdrawing the credentials of its ambassador to the institution – who dramatically switched his allegiance from Qaddafi to the Libyan people last week – and was passing them on to a new permanent representative.

The UN has no say in who represents a country before the global institution, Martin Nesirky, a spokesman for Mr. Ban, explained Friday. Libya is a member of the UN as recognized by the member states, he added, and as such is free to designate its diplomatic representatives as it chooses.

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