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Evacuees return with tales of woe

THE latest Irish evacuees from Libya arrived home yesterday on a government jet with dramatic tales of their escape from the strife-torn country.

Christine Allen, from Glasnevin in Dublin, told how she and her Libyan husband, Hamad Abuzgiya, 49, and their two teenage daughters, decided to leave their home in Benghazi after witnessing the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi's "rambling" address to the nation on Sunday night.

They eventually got out on a British frigate on Thursday.

"I was so delighted to see the commandos, I must admit. They couldn't have been nicer. They were so organised. The crossing was terrible but that wasn't their fault, it was the sea," she said.

Throughout the week of unrest, they did not venture outside their home 20 minutes outside Benghazi but friends witnessed fighting from anti-aircraft guns in the city. Hamad claimed 300 died in three nights.

"We weren't going to go until on Sunday night after he [Colonel Gaddafi] spoke. I was terrified after that. Normally you would understand some of the things he was saying but he was rambling and to me he reminded me of Hitler," said Christine.

She said it was a relief being back on Irish soil. "Even getting on the boat was a relief. It was frightening, especially when you see them sitting there with the guns at the harbour waiting for us to get on. Anything could have happened, even at that stage."

Seven Irish were flown home from Malta on the government jet to Baldonnel yesterday afternoon. All were in Benghazi, where the worst fighting between Gaddafi's forces and protesters has taken place. Reports on Friday claimed 500 were dead and 2000 injured. The Irish got out of Libya on board two British frigates, including the HSS Cumberland, on Thursday evening and were met by the Irish rescue team in Malta.

They included Joe Quinn, 57, and Raymond Beauchamp, 45, both from Northern Ireland, who amongst a team of people were working on a new airport in Benghazi.

"We were in this camp. The vehicles were all stolen. Our worry was that we were so close to the old airport that it was going to bombed and we were going to be right in the middle of it," said Mr Quinn. "We had our own security people. They were Libyans but we didn't know who they were but they arrived there to protect us. They could've been anyone. They were armed and we knew that a lot of them weren't trained to use arms properly."

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Adam Bunkheila, 25, whose mother is from Tipperary, had only recently moved back to Benghazi from London to work in the family business. He was on his way to London this weekend.

Unlike other Irish evacuees who criticised the Department of Foreign Affairs rescue efforts earlier in the week, all of them praised the Irish diplomatic and Air Corps personnel who helped them.

The prospects of evacuating the remaining Irish passport holders appeared increasingly uncertain as the upheaval in Libya deepened. A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said it had contacted a family of seven in Tripoli who had indicated they wanted to get out of the country. They were also trying to make contact with a family of three. The Irish consular rescue team and an Airforce aircraft is on standby in Malta yesterday for deployment to Tripoli to reach them.

Six other men are stranded in oil fields in remote parts of the country. They are confined to compounds with other nationalities, including Britons. Rescue efforts are being led by other countries.

The Department of Foreign Affairs was criticised earlier this week for what other Irish evacuees claimed was an inadequate response to their plights. Fintan Coen, one of 16 teachers in Libya to teach at an exclusive private school in the capital, Tripoli, got out safely on Tuesday thanks to the intervention of a German pilot who took them on his flight to Turkey. There were six Irish teachers in his group. Another teacher, Claire Walsh, from Kildare, got home the following day on a British evacuation flight. She described the department's response as "useless".

Speaking from his home in Roscommon, Mr Coen described the teachers' desperate pleas for assistance from the Department of Foreign Affairs last weekend. Confined to the school compound with no phones and sporadic internet access, they became increasingly worried: "We could hear things starting on our street outside, protests started up and down and you'd hear the odd gunshot. On Sunday night we were able to feel the tear gas coming in through the windows," he said. "The school was run by Gaddafi's people. They had our passports. They weren't giving them back to us. You need an exit stamp to get out of the country. Without that exit stamp -- which they had the power to give us -- we weren't able to go anywhere. We wanted the Department of Foreign Affairs to make efforts to get exit stamps for us, to do something to get us out."

They eventually retrieved their passports and took shelter at the house of a Libyan teacher in the suburbs. "We got to the airport on Tuesday morning," he said. "It was a scene of mayhem and chaos there. There were people being beaten back with batons. It was very violent, there was no law and order, it was a dog-eat-dog situation," said Coen. They had the good fortune to meet a German pilot, Guido Fromm, who had a half-empty plane on the runway bound for Istanbul. He refused to leave until he had filled it with evacuees.

Senator Mark Daly, who sits on an Oireachtas foreign affairs committee, who was contacted by the anxious families back home, said: "These families were distraught. No one was able to tell all the families what was being done on their behalf."

He said he contacted "a team in the Taoiseach's office which is ultimately in charge of this kind of thing," he said. He said behind the scenes efforts were going to get a plane to Tripoli and at one stage, officials considered asking Ryanair for the use of planes based in Malta.

As the violence escalated and thousands of refugees clamoured to get out of the country, the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, signed off the deployment of two Air Corps planes on Tuesday. They landed at Tripoli airport on Wednesday. The officers on board had no advance clearance to disembark, so they were not allowed to leave the aircraft or to make contact with the Irish people in the terminal. The plane flew back to its base in Malta. A senior official later said it was "very, very regretful".

The Irish rescue mission eventually landed in Tripoli on Friday but the team could find only two Irish people at the airport. They boarded an evacuation flight that evening. The rescue team retreated to Malta on Friday night and remained there yesterday.

Guido Fromm, the German pilot who flew the Irish teachers home, said: "If you go into Tripoli airport and you follow the rules and you order passengers, you don't get anybody. You have to pay the security guys to make some space to get my people on board. If you are landing in Tripoli, you really have to go into the airport, take them by the hand, go to a check-in counter and then you get passengers. Otherwise, no chance."

He said there were "70,000 to 80,000 people" crowded in front of Tripoli airport. "They are shooting in the air to control the situation," he said.