RAS AJDIR, Tunisia – Thousands of migrant workers were on the move in Libya on Saturday, trying to flee the fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi's regime, U.N. refugee agency and immigration officials said.
Most of the thousands of foreign workers in Libya's rebel-held port of Benghazi were evacuated, the officials said, and about 10,000 others inside Libya were heading for a border crossing at Salloum, Egypt.
About 5,000 migrants including women and children were stranded at Salloum, huddled in empty buildings and in need of food, water and sanitation. Most were Bangladeshi and Africans desperate to get home, and tensions were growing among them, the International Organization for Migration said.
More broadly, the geographic spread of stranded migrants is much greater than previously thought, the organization said. Vietnamese, Nepalese and Bangladeshi migrant workers have been found in Malta, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Algeria and Sudan.
At the Libya-Tunisia border, thousands spent the night in a 20,000-capacity tent camp, awaiting evacuation. Some of those coming from Libya in the past two days said they had attempted the journey before but were held back by heavy fighting along the way.
There has been a marked drop in the number of migrant workers coming across the border, from a peak of 20,000 several days ago to between 1,400 and 1,800, the U.N. said. On Saturday, only 500 had crossed into Tunisia by midday, said a U.N. official at the border.
People fleeing for Tunisia said they had to pass through dozens of checkpoints on the way from Tripoli to the border. All said they had been robbed by Gadhafi's security forces.
U.N. officials are trying to obtain updated satellite images to see whether large groups of migrant workers are waiting on the Libyan border, said Gilbert Greenhall, a spokesman for a U.N. disaster aid agency.
Those who crossed into Tunisia in the last two days have reported seeing thousands of fellow migrant workers on the Libyan side, but it was unclear why they were not approaching the border. The U.N. refugee agency said it worries that thousands of people trying to cross over are being held back by Libyan authorities.
Greenhall, based at the border tent camp in Tunisia, said the most recent satellite images are several days old, but that new data would only be available Sunday.
Sony Attakora, 30, said he and several dozen other men from Ghana arrived in Tunisia on Friday, after having money and cell phones taken by Libyan forces. He said the group had tried to travel last week but was ordered back by Libyan troops because of heavy fighting.
Egyptian Foreign Ministry official Nagui Ghaba said evacuees told him that people are afraid to make the trip to the border because the Libyan army was regrouping and there was the possibility that those fleeing might get caught in the fighting.