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GENEVA (AP) — European nations and Egypt launched emergency airlifts along Libya's borders Wednesday, as tens of thousands of hungry, anxious foreign workers poured into Tunisia to escape Libya's burgeoning civil war.
More than 140,000 refugees have already fled across the Libyan border into Tunisia and Egypt and thousands more were arriving by the day. As border crossings were overwhelmed with mostly young men, U.N. experts warned that fast action was needed to protect and feed them before the exodus turned into a humanitarian crisis.
Many were from countries that could not afford evacuations, while others were sub-Saharan African workers whose lives are in danger because they are being mistaken for mercenaries hired by Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. Human Rights Watch warned that fleeing African workers were "particularly under threat due to popular anger" over Gadhafi's mercenaries.
Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain had begun an airlift Wednesday to help Egyptians stranded on the Libyan-Tunisian border get back home. The British planes, departing from Djerba, Tunisia, will help evacuate up to 8,800 Egyptian migrants to Cairo.
"These people shouldn't be kept in transit camps," Cameron said.
The Egyptian military announced it has sent two ships to Tunisia to bring back stranded Egyptians who fled from Libya, and another Egyptian military transport ship was already there.
Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Abdel-Hakam said more than 103,000 Egyptians home have returned from Libya either through the airports or by land since the political situation deteriorated in Libya, and another 20,000 foreigners have fled to Egypt from Libya.
More than 75,000 people have crossed from Libya into Tunisia since Feb. 19, U.N. officials said, the vast majority of them Egyptians. Abdel-Hakam said up to 18,000 Egyptians were now at Libya's border with Tunisia, and that is expected to increase.
Some 40,000 more people are waiting on the Libyan side of the border to enter Tunisia.
"Most have been traveling for three or four days. They are walking and have had nothing to eat for up to 48 hours," said World Food Program spokeswoman Abeer Etefa, who was at the border.
"The majority of the people coming across the border are young Tunisian and Egyptian men who were working in Libya. Tens of thousands are coming every day," she said.
Her agency said it launched a $38.7 million emergency operation to bring food to 2.7 million people in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia over the next three months. The first airlift of 80 metric tons of high energy biscuits arrived Monday, while shipments of wheat and wheat flour were being sent to the Tunisian border and to the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Spanish Prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero, visiting Tunisia on Wednesday, told reporters that Spain has already sent a plane with 30 tons of humanitarian aid to the Libyan-Tunisian border and has another plane available, both for more aid or for moving refugees. He gave no further details.
"We can also make ships available and the foreign ministry is coordinating this with the Tunisian government," Zapatero told reporters.
He said Spain is willing to commit to a €300 million ($414 million) credit line over the next three years to help economic recovery in Tunisia and other North African countries through the EU's European Investment Bank.
France, too, announced an airlift and naval operation coordinated with the European Union. Large airliners and a French Navy ship were heading to the region to evacuate at least 5,000 Egyptian refugees and bring them home.
The 57-nation Organization of The Islamic Conference said it would set up two field hospitals and provide ambulances on the Tunisian and Egyptian borders with Libya. It also planned to provide temporary shelters for 10,000 people and hand out flour, sugar, rice, canned food and infant formula.
The International Organization for Migration said it had evacuated 3,850 people from Tunisia by air and sea.
"Every few minutes we learn about more and more groups of migrants either stranded inside Libya or those who arrive at its borders with Egypt, Tunisia and Niger," said group's operations director, Mohammed Abdiker. "The scale of this crisis cannot be underestimated."
His organization said thousands of people inside Libya were also preparing to move to Niger as food prices skyrocket and supplies run out, and that two Africans were killed Monday when they left their home to search for food.
Among those stranded at the Tunisian border were Bangladeshi, Vietnamese, Filipinos and Ghanaians, and 2,400 more Africans at Tumo on the Libyan side of the border with Niger. A group of 1,150 Nigerians left already after getting help from U.N. agencies in Dirkou, Niger, but another 4,000 people, mostly Nigerians, were stranded around the Libyan coastal city of Misrata.
Pope Benedict XVI got a private briefing Wednesday on the refugee crisis from U.N. World Food Program Director Josette Sheeran, who had just visited the Libyan-Tunisian border.
"It was clear to me as I saw these desperate people pour across the border — more than 2,000 an hour — that the world must act — and must act quickly — to prevent a major humanitarian disaster," Sheeran said. "Cutting off food supplies must not be used as a weapon."
The international charity Save the Children estimated that 1 million children in western Libya were in harm's way as Gadhafi's forces fight protesters for control of key towns and cities, including the capital, Tripoli.