Libya closed its airspace yesterday (21 February), leaving thousands of foreign nationals stranded amid the escalating violence. Meanwhile, EU ministers gathered in Brussels seemed to realise that the country’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi would not hesitate to trade their lives against his political survival.
Thousands of foreigners were left stranded in Libya, where mass protests escalated in the worst scenario so far of the “domino revolutions” that swept across the Arab world. The violence has already claimed the lives of over 200 people.
An Austrian army transport plane, which was to evacuate about 60 EU citizens from Libya, became stranded in the airport as “the entire airspace is blocked,” an Austrian defence ministry official told DPA yesterday.
In Brussels, British Foreign Secretary William Hague called on the Libyan authorities to ensure the protection for foreign nationals, including 3,500 Britons, and assistance for those trying to leave the country.
Leaving Libya is not an easy task, as the regime imposes “exit visas” on foreigners and can deny them without explanation, said Laurent Wauquiez, French Secretary of State for European Affairs.
Diplomats seem worried that Gaddafi will be tempted to treat foreigners as hostages. In the recent past, the Libyan dictator has held four Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor in an HIV trial. Their ordeal lasted from 1998 to 2007, when they were freed following strong EU pressure.
In 2008-2009 Gadaffi has been engaged in an ever escalating war of words with Switzerland. Following the arrest by Swiss police of Gadaffi’s son Hannibal and his wife for assaulting their housekeeping staff, the Libya regime effectively took hostage of a few Swiss entrepreneurs on business in Libya for over a year.
Mohamed Bakari, an Arab journalist working in Bulgaria, told Focus news agency that “foreigners in Libya are hostages”. He said that the most important task for the Western community would be to have the foreigners evacuated from the country.
In the recent past, Gaddafi has willingly played the role of mediator on a number of hostage-taking cases across Africa and Asia. According to analysts, he comes from a tribe with a strong hostage-taking mentality.
The Libyan leader has also used blackmail on a number of occasions. Recently, he asked the EU to pay him €5 billion in order to avoid Europe “turning black” from waves of African immigrants sailing from Libya’s coasts.
Laurent Wauquiez, French secretary of state for European affairs, told journalists in Brussels that “the top priority is safety” for those trying to leave the country.
“There cannot be and there should not be any state blackmail,” Wauquiez warned, without specifying what he was referring to.
In Brussels, EU foreign ministers spoke of the risk posed by immigration waves from Libya, should the situation continue to deteriorate.
Tens of thousands of illegal migrants try to make the journey from the northern coasts of Tunisia and Libya to islands off Italy every year, with hundreds having to be rescued by Italy’s coastguard and housed in migration centres.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said EU states were likely to ask the European Parliament to back a medium-to-long term strategy to support development of infrastructure, investment and the private sector in the region after it already approved a one billion euro boost in development funding.
Frattini said Europeans were concerned about the threat of much greater illegal migration as a result of the Libyan unrest, which Italy is already facing from Tunisia.
While calling for a “Marshall Plan” to assist North Africa and the Middle East, Frattini, whose prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has close ties to Gaddafi, said Europe should not give the impression of trying to “export our democracy”.
“We have to help, we have to support peaceful reconciliation,” he said.