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Exhausted escapees from Libya blocked by unwelcoming Tunisians

They line the road, on both sides of the border, for several kilometres in the open sun, packed against the crossing so tightly that hundreds of them passed out from crushing and exhaustion.

On Sunday, this dizzy exodus of people exploded into violence, with huge crowds of escapees charging a border packed with protesters determined to keep them in Libya - after they had passed through guards who remain loyal to dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

More than 100,000 people have fled Libya in the past seven days. As the final battle for Libya looms, the crowds of escapees become bigger and more desperate.

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Almost half of them have come through this narrow stretch of road leading across the northern Sahara into Tunisia. There are teams of Chinese oil workers in identical uniforms, large packs of Bangladeshis, scatterings of Japanese, and mostly thousands and thousands of Egyptians, who have provided the bulk of Libya's labour force for years.

"We're getting out because we're scared, but also because there won't be any paycheques for a long time. We know there won't be work until there's a new government, which could be months from now," said Haji Abasi, who took his wife and two small children on the frightening road journey from Libya.

At this point, there is no violence along the three-hour drive from Tripoli to the border. Only at the border crossing is the solid green Gadhafi flag visible, a last stand for the regime, held by some of Col. Gadhafi's most loyal security staff.

But the border guards - who systematically seize cellphones from refugees, strip them of their memory cards, and sometimes harass and humiliate the escapees - are not the final threat to the exhausted people carrying their possessions in oversized bags.

That came after the Libyan border, when on Sunday the Egyptians were blocked by aggressive crowds of Tunisian protesters who tried - usually successfully - to stop or sharply slow the flow of Egyptians, allowing only families and injured people through.

The protesters include residents of the nearby border town of Ben Gardane, who feel that they are being overrun with tens of thousands of homeless Egyptians, and members of the local revolutionary committee who believe they are helping the Egyptians by drawing attention to their plight and encouraging the Cairo government to send rescue airlifts.

"We don't have any more space to accept the Egyptians - we are blocking the border until the Egyptian authorities find a solution for their transportation," said Lutfi Tabeth, a member of the Ben Gardane revolutionary committee.

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It became a frightening and dangerous scene on Sunday afternoon as several thousand Egyptians charged the border, pushing through the Tunisian protesters and attempting to charge into the camps, only to be stopped by Tunisian soldiers who raised their rifles and forced them to sit on the street, closing the border again.

"It's an awful lot of people, 10,000 to 12,00 a day now, so the security services are not able to control a flow of that size - that's their concern," said Sophie Galand, a Quebecker working with the International Committee of the Red Cross/Crescent who was co-ordinating medical aid.

She reported that the border chaos was the main cause of hospitalization, with several hundred people treated for exhaustion, heat exposure and crush injuries. There were no reports of anyone injured in the conflict at the border Saturday, and very few reported having witnessed any violent incidents since last Monday.

A larger concern lies with the refugees who are unable to find transport home. This includes many of the Egyptians. It also includes large numbers of Bangladeshis who were employed by large Chinese construction companies taking part in Libya's oil-funded building boom.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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