Manila to evacuate 13,000 amid renewed Libya clashes

TRIPOLI (AFP) - The Philippines was preparing Thursday to evacuate 13,000 citizens from Libya as violence continued to rage and a Filipino worker was beheaded and a nurse gang-raped there.

At the same time, Greece was sending a warship to evacuate some of its nationals as well as some from other countries, while Spain is pulling out most of its embassy staff.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario was heading to neighbouring Tunisia to organise an evacuation as fighting resumed between militias seeking to control the Libyan capital's crippled international airport.

Mr Del Rosario said he was repeating a 2011 mission that evacuated thousands of Filipino workers during the uprising that toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

"Our major challenge, as in 2011, is to convince our folks that they must leave Libya at the soonest time to avoid the perils of a highly exacerbating situation there," he told reporters in Manila.

The Philippines ordered an evacuation on July 20, hours after the discovery in the eastern city of Benghazi of the beheaded remains of a Filipino construction worker who had been abducted. Manila also imposed a travel ban to the North African country, which has been plagued by violence since Gaddafi's overthrow.

On Wednesday, a Filipina nurse was abducted by a gang of youths outside her residence in Tripoli and gang-raped before being released two hours later, the foreign department said.

Despite the dangers, Mr del Rosario said many of the Filipinos, mostly construction and health workers, are refusing to leave because they would be unemployed back home.

Only a few more than 700 had left Libya by Wednesday, despite the rapidly deteriorating situation, as warring factions battle for control of key population centres.

Mr Del Rosario said he was flying to Tunisia's Djerba island to "try to convince our people to leave (Libya) because the situation there is very dangerous.

"We are in the process of engaging ships from Malta that would pick up our people from Benghazi, Misrata and hopefully Tripoli then return to Malta for air transport to Manila," he said.

While each vessel could carry up to 1,500 people, he said the government was still negotiating safe passage through these ports. Failing that, the Filipinos would be bussed to Tunisia, where flight arrangements would be made, he added.

In Athens, meanwhile, an official said a navy frigate was en route to Libya to evacuate some 200 people, including diplomatic staff. These include around 70 Greeks, some 15 Cypriots and 80 Chinese, in addition to other nationalities. And the Spanish foreign ministry said it was pulling its ambassador and all but one of the embassy's staff due to the "worsening security situation".

The United States, Canada, France and Brazil have temporarily shuttered their embassies in Tripoli, while several Western countries and Egypt have advised their citizens to leave immediately. However, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi stood defiant and insisted European nations must stay in Libya if they were serious about tackling major global issues.

"Staying in Libya signifies trying to have a role in several of the most important geopolitical questions of the coming years: peace, security and immigration," Mr Renzi said. Italy, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, has kept its embassy open in Libya, along with Britain.

But the European Union said it had moved its staff in Libya to Tunisia in light of the deteriorating security situation. They would return to Tripoli "as soon as conditions allow," a spokesman for the EU's external affairs arm said.

Mr Del Rosario could not have flown in to Tripoli if he had wanted to, because the airport was knocked out of commission by fighting earlier this month.

Another round of clashes erupted on Thursday, airport security chief Al-Jilani al-Dahech said, with attackers assaulting the facility using both small arms and heavy weapons. At least 100 people have reportedly been killed and 400 wounded since July 13 when the airport battle erupted.

Witnesses said there was also fighting on the road to the airport and in a western suburb of the capital on Thursday, while numerous explosions were heard in the city centre. The Tripoli clashes, the most violent since Gaddafi's ouster, began with an assault on the airport by a coalition of groups, mainly Islamists, which has since been backed by fighters from third city Misrata.

The attackers are battling to flush out fellow former rebels from the hill town of Zintan, southwest of Tripoli, who have controlled the airport for the past three years. Meanwhile, firefighters were still battling a blaze at a fuel depot near the airport that broke out on Sunday when a rocket hit a storage tank. More than 90 million litres of fuel are stored in the facility, which also houses a natural gas reservoir.

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