Turkey struggles with chaotic evacuation of citizens from Libya
TUNIS, Tunisia - Hürriyet Daily News | 2/21/2011 12:00:00 AM | FULYA ÖZERKAN
With unrest growing in Libya, Turkey is struggling to get permission to evacuate the 25,000 Turkish citizens living there. As one plane is forced to turn back empty, the Turkish foreign minister says Turkey is focused on ensuring 'personal safety' amid threats of civil war, and claims by Libyan state media that protesters were encouraged by foreigners
Legal issues and landing restrictions have complicated Turkey’s attempts to evacuate its citizens from Libya as the protest-hit country potentially approaches “civil war,” amid Libyan accusations that Turks helped fan the unrest.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry called an emergency meeting late Sunday to discuss the Libya crisis and has provided its Benghazi consulate with additional civil servants to better coordinate the evacuations. A Turkish plane flew to Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, on a repatriation mission early Monday but returned empty to Istanbul after it failed to get permission to land.
“Right now personal safety remains the most important priority in Libya, which makes it different from the other developments in the region,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told a group of reporters accompanying him to Tunisia, where protesters ousted the country’s longtime president in January.
Though Turkey successfully evacuated many of the 3,000 Turks living in Egypt during that country’s crisis, the situation in Libya is proving more challenging. The Turkish population in the country is much larger than in Egypt and the need to obtain legal permission from Libyan authorities makes it difficult to evacuate them.
Davutoğlu said the priority on “personal safety” includes both the safety of the approximately 25,000 Turkish citizens living in Libya as well as Libyan citizens.
“We don’t want the breakout of civil war in Libya. The number-one priority is to ensure individual safety in a way that will not allow fighting between brothers and to sustain dialogue between the parties concerned,” the foreign minister said.
[HH] Evacuation chaos
Turkey evacuated 581 citizens from Libya in two planes Sunday and was set to dispatch two ferries from Istanbul to Benghazi on Monday to bring home 2,400 more.
Diplomatic sources said the number of flights to evacuate more citizens would increase if official permission could be obtained from Libyan authorities. Though there are plans to send four more planes, one Boeing 777 that took off Monday morning had to return empty to Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport after Libya refused to grant landing permission.
Turkey is also reportedly weighing the option of bringing some of its citizens overland to Egypt and conducting air evacuations from there. Diplomatic sources said there was no problem obtaining the necessary permission from Egyptian authorities, but that Turkey was waiting for consent from Libyan officials to implement that plan.
[HH] Erdoğan talks to Gadhafi
As Ankara scrambled to organize evacuations, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke twice on the phone late Sunday with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to discuss the security of Turks in Libya. “Mr. Gadhafi told the prime minister that they would extend all support and assistance,” Foreign Trade Minister Zafer Çağlayan told reporters Monday. He said the two leaders spoke by telephone twice, without giving other details. Erdoğan and Gadhafi reportedly discussed the problems Turkish evacuation planes were having landing at Libyan airports.
“Necessary contacts were made with the right people at the right time,” Davutoğlu said when asked if he had made any official contacts with Libyan authorities. “It is necessary to establish contacts to reach out to our citizens now; there is a need for contact even to send a plane. There is no need to go into detail.”
Responding to claims in Libyan state media that foreigners, including Turks, had provoked anti-Gadhafi protests in order to serve Israeli interests, Davutoğlu did not give a clear answer, saying only that Turkey’s priority is to ensure the safety of its citizens. The Turkish Embassy in Tripoli asked Libyan authorities about the identities of the Turks against whom the claims were made, daily Hürriyet reported Monday.
The foreign minister also emphasized the “active policy” Turkey has pursued with regard to developments in the Middle East and North Africa, saying Turkey has given the right messages at the right time. “These messages were given not to particular countries, but to the region,” he said.
The Foreign Ministry’s emergency meeting on the situation late Sunday was attended by officials from the National Intelligence Organization, or MİT, the General Staff, the Interior Ministry and the Civilian Aviation Authority, as well as Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Çiçek.
[HH] Domino effect
“If you pay attention, there is a domino effect in terms of social movement and everywhere is active. One day it is Libya, the next day it is Algeria or Yemen,” Davutoğlu said, noting that he has been discussing the issue with British and U.S. foreign officials.
“Everyone is now trying to understand the course of events and set them on a right axis by minimizing risks. Turkey is at the center of the developments,” he said. “Why are we heading to Tunisia while developments are taking place in Libya? The developments actually began in Tunisia and Tunisian people proved they could realize their own transformation through peaceful means and [President Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali, who was holding power for a long time, departed.”
Davutoğlu cautioned, however, against seeing the Arab world as homogenous, saying that what is right for Egypt may not be right for Bahrain, and what is right for Bahrain might not be right for Libya.
“But there are democracy standards that are universal,” he added. “Every country has special conditions but there are the rules of universal democracy. One of the most important representatives of these rules is the Council of Europe.”
Davutoğlu is visiting Tunisia as term president of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers.
[HH] Social media vs the human factor
Responding to a question on the impact of social-media tools such as Twitter and Facebook on the uprisings in the region, Davutoğlu said the matter was not that simple.
“This event has a background tracing back decades but once there were effective tools such as Twitter and the Internet, this potential was activated. Now in an influential country like Turkey, such a tool would not lead to such results,” he said. “If there’s a problem that has accumulated for decades, technology only activates it; everything cannot be tied to technology. The most important thing is the human factor. It is necessary to read the human factor accurately.”