Aid groups scramble as refugee crisis grows on Libya borders

CAIRO — Concerned about rapidly worsening conditions in Libya, international humanitarian groups on Sunday stepped up their presence at the country's borders and in opposition-controlled cities to assess reported shortages of food and medical supplies and to assist thousands of displaced people who’ve been stranded by the crisis.

Hundreds of Libyans have died and many more were wounded in clashes with security forces since Feb. 17, when large demonstrations began against the regime led by Moammar Gadhafi. Because of communications disruptions and the lack of security, exact casualty figures are unavailable. Libyans have reported a scarcity of vegetables, flour and other staples.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has an advance team in Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi, in eastern Libya, which is now fully under the control of anti-Gadhafi forces. The government still holds a shaky grasp on the capital, Tripoli, and most of the western part of the country. An ICRC medical team was en route to the Egyptian border Sunday and two carloads of medical supplies were sent earlier this week to help Libya’s “overwhelmed hospitals,” said Mohamed Sultan, the ICRC spokesman in Cairo. Other supplies were going into Libya from Tunisia.

Sultan said the ICRC is troubled by reports that the government is blocking assistance for wounded and stranded residents. Witnesses also have said that pro-Gadhafi mobs have targeted hospitalized protesters.

“We believe that the wounded and sick have the right to health care and must be allowed to receive it,” Sultan said. “We underline the issue of attacking patients in hospitals. That must stop.”

An ICRC tracing and protection team set out for the Egyptian border early Sunday to help stranded migrant workers from Africa and Asia who’ve been stuck in limbo at the border station, unable either to enter Egypt or return to Libya.

On Friday, a McClatchy reporter saw dozens of Filipinos, Africans from various nations, and other foreign workers waiting in the border station, where the bathroom facilities were dismal and trash had accumulated in waist-high piles.

An army tank was positioned at the Egyptian side of the crossing and the government had sent several tour buses to give free rides home to the thousands of Egyptians fleeing the violence. An estimated 1.5 million Egyptians, mainly laborers, work in Libya. The workers’ exodus could spell trouble for Egypt’s economy – their families survive on money they send from Libya.

The Egyptian health ministry said in a statement that the army had set up tents and a field hospital in the border town of Salloum, as well as extra hospital beds in the nearby city of Marsa Matrouh. The government also sent 22 ambulances to the border area.

Abeer Etefa, a senior spokeswoman with the U.N.’s World Food Program, said the poor security conditions had so far prevented the agency from entering Libya, but added that teams were already on both the Egyptian and Tunisian borders with the country. The United Nations has said 22,000 people have fled to Tunisia, and 15,000 to Egypt since Feb.22.

A WFP plane from Rome is expected to arrive Monday with boxes of high-energy biscuits, which Etefa said would provide basic nutrition for displaced people until the WFP teams could procure food locally. She said the border traffic is mostly Egyptians and Tunisian workers fleeing the violence, along with laborers from sub-Saharan African countries, whose embassies are beginning to repatriate them.

Etefa, who spoke by telephone Sunday while en route to the Tunisian-Libyan border, said there are conflicting reports as to how dire the food shortages are inside Libya. She said the scarcity could become a big problem because Libya relies mainly on imported food and goods.

“We’re obviously concerned about the food supplies into the cities and towns,” she said. “When there’s a situation like this, it’s unsafe for delivery trucks to enter.”

Last week, residents in and around the eastern city of Tobruk said they were already suffering a severe shortage of vegetables and flour. As residents scrambled to stockpile food and fuel, some merchants began gouging prices, putting vital commodities out of reach for the poorest Libyans. Religious leaders have condemned price gouging, calling it an exploitation of the humanitarian crisis.

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