18 April 2011
The UK is to help free 5,000 migrants trapped by fighting in western Libya, the UK’s international development secretary has said.
Andrew Mitchell said funds of £1.5m would pay to charter ships to get people out of the rebel-held town of Misrata and provide medical supplies.
The minister is in New York attending a UN meeting to discuss the humanitarian situation in Libya.
Aid workers and Misrata residents have said the situation there is “dire”.
They have reported shortages of food, power, water and medicine, as forces loyal to Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi intensify their shelling of the city.
The BBC’s Barbara Plett, reporting from the United Nations, said some of the most desperate were thousands of migrant workers from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.
Mr Mitchell said Britain would help fund their evacuation in ships chartered by the International Organization for Migration.
Further funds would go towards the International Medical Corps (IMC) to provide medical aid for those caught up in violence across western Libya, he added. The money comes from the department’s humanitarian aid funds.
He told the BBC Britain would continue to do everything it could to press for access to people in need, and would try to ensure the international community lined up behind UN efforts to help Libyan civilians trapped by the fighting.
“We’ve been quite effective at coping with the problems on the borders but inside Libya, because of the actions of the Gaddafi regime, the situation has deteriorated most markedly in Misrata,” he told the BBC’s World Today.
He added that it was “appalling” that Libya had not given humanitarian workers access to the country.
Later, Mr Mitchell said the UK expected other countries to share the burden of humanitarian support.
He added that the talks were also focused on “what happens when the fighting is over, how we ensure that stability returns to Libya, how there is a process that is owned by the Libyans but strongly supported by the region, the European Union, Britain and other countries” – but led by the United Nations.
The UN, meanwhile, has called for a ceasefire between the warring sides in Libya in order to help civilians caught up in the fighting.
After talks in the capital, Tripoli, the UN’s head of humanitarian relief, Valerie Amos, said she did not get a “positive response” to the call for a ceasefire, but was assured the UN would be allowed a humanitarian presence in Libya.
Baroness Amos said thousands of people in Misrata were waiting to be evacuated and thousands more were in desperate need of medical attention, sanitation, clean water and electricity.
BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen said Misrata was now top of the international agenda, as events there had come to symbolise the shortcomings of Nato’s bombing campaign which was supposed to protect Libyan civilians.
For the Libyan government, Misrata – the only rebel held part of western Libya – is politically and strategically important. If government troops could dislodge them, they would claim an important victory, he added.
Rebels told our correspondent the city came under heavy fire on Monday, with indiscriminate shelling of everything, including houses and animals.
The International Organization for Migration has already evacuated two boat-loads of migrants from Misrata.
Jemini Pandya, from the organisation, said those on board were weak and dehydrated, with some close to death.
Libyan war casualties, including a baby who had been shot in the face, were also given space on the boat bound for Benghazi, she said.
She estimated at least 4,000 migrants, whom she described as “the overlooked in the humanitarian crisis” remained in the port area.
In the meantime, the IMC will send five-person volunteer surgical and trauma teams to medical facilities, together with supplies including antibiotics, bandages, first aid kits and surgical equipment.
It will also provide emergency evacuations for the most severely sick and injured to Benghazi and outside Libya, according to a Department for International Development statement.
Rabih Torbay, of the IMC, said Britain’s support had come at a “critical time” and would enable doctors to provide lifesaving care to at least 30 severely wounded people a day, and daily care to hundreds more.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s official spokesman said the government was continuing to review the issue of giving non-lethal assistance to the rebels. He would not comment on the question of arming rebels.
Later, the Ministry of Defence said RAF Tornado and Typhoon planes destroyed five vehicles over the weekend, including three battle tanks, in the Misrata and Ajdabiya areas.
Shadow International Development Secretary Harriet Harman said that in the light of alarming reports of rape and sexual violence in Misrata, the international community must do all it could to protect women from violence.
She called for renewed support from the whole international community for UN-led action to help those who needed it and said Labour supported the government’s efforts to provide aid to those suffering in Libya.
On Sunday, six civilians were reported to have died and more injured in a barrage of rocket fire. Pro-government fighters were also said to have shelled Ajdabiya in the east.
The UK’s Department for International Development has said about 300 civilians have been killed and a further 1,000 injured in Misrata since late February.