ROME – European countries sent planes and ferries to Libya to evacuate their citizens, and some oil and gas companies pulled their foreign staff out and suspended operations, as anti-government protests spread to Tripoli for the first time.

Many countries had already urged their citizens to avoid nonessential travel to Libya, or recommended that those already there leave on commercial flights. But as Libya's bloody crackdown against protesters moved to the capital, countries and companies alike stepped up their contingency plans.

Oil companies, including Italy's Eni, Royal Dutch Shell PLC, U.K.-based BP and Germany's Wintershall, a subsidiary of BASF, were evacuating their expat workers or their families or both. BP and Wintershall said they were temporarily suspending operations; Eni said production continued normally.

Libya is one of the world's biggest oil producers and has the largest proven oil reserves in the whole of Africa. Eni, Italy's largest natural gas and oil company, has operated there for more than 50 years and is the biggest foreign player in Libya.

Passengers returning Monday night to Rome aboard an Alitalia aircraft from Tripoli said they had heard gunfire through the night in the Libyan capital, but an eerie silence had blanketed the city as they drove to the airport in the morning.

"We had civilians with guns on every corner, so it is not safe at all," said Zoran Siljak, a Serbian working in Libya for a paint company. "Last night, there were shots through the night, there was fighting in the streets."

Portugal and Austria sent C-130 planes to pick up their citizens and other EU nationals, and Turkey sent two ferries to fetch construction workers stranded by the unrest. The Dutch government was seeking clearance to send a military plane to evacuate its citizens on Tuesday and Russian gas company Gazprom was dispatching a plane that was due to return Tuesday, a Russian news agency reported.

"We are very worried about the situation in Libya," Spain's foreign minister, Trinidad Jimenez, said at a regular monthly EU ministerial meeting in Brussels that was largely focused on the unrest across the Middle East. "At the same time, we are coordinating the possible evacuation of EU citizens from Libya."

Turkey was sending two ferries to Libya to evacuate Turks — mostly construction workers. The decision came hours after authorities at the airport in Benghazi, the country's second largest city and a center of the protests, would not allow a Turkish Airlines plane to land, forcing it to circle the airport and then return to Istanbul.

Turkish Foreign Trade Minister Zafer Caglayan said four planes were on standby, while Turkey is also considering evacuating some of its citizens by land, through Egypt. Turkey began evacuating its citizens after several Turkish construction sites around Benghazi were attacked and looted by protesters on Friday.

Seven people who said they were French citizens arrived unexpectedly in Malta on Monday aboard two helicopters in an apparent do-it-yourself evacuation that was carried out so quickly only one of them had a passport, a Maltese military source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. They were being questioned by Maltese immigration officials.

Austria, which had a C-130 Hercules on standby in Malta since Sunday, sent it into Tripoli on Monday with a psychologist on board. It took off Monday night with 62 evacuees from Austria, France the Netherlands and Germany, bound for the Maltese capital, said Defense Ministry spokesman Michael Bauer.