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Tunisian authorities, aid agencies prepare for Libya exodus

The new Choucha transit camp on the Libya-Tunisia border. Refugees gather every day in hopes of hearing about their departure status. Photo: Jesse Hardman/Internews.[UPDATED 21/03] As the conflict in Libya enters a new phase, the flow of refugees and migrants out of Libya appears to have accelerated. Government and humanitarian agencies have been preparing for the worst.

Across the border, Tunisian public health, military and civil protection sectors gathered Saturday in anticipation of a dramatic increase in Libyan refugee numbers. Humanitarian agencies had already been stockpiling supplies in Tunisia.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said on Friday (March 18) it was ready to work with the Egyptian government to prepare for a "massive influx" of people there fleeing the violence in Libya.

The pace  of events has added to the uncertainty facing Libyan residents.

On Thursday (March 17 22:30 GMT), the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1973 'to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamhariya… while excluding an occupation force'.

The vote was 10-0 with five abstentions: China, Russia, Brazil, India and Germany. The following afternoon, Gaddafi's government declared a ceasefire. However, continued actions against rebels by the Libyan military were reported. On Saturday, a coalition of international forces launched their first missiles on Libyan targets.

Gaddafi has now declared another ceasefire. A spokesman for Downing Street responded that Gaddafi remained in breach of the UN resolution. "Everyone will recall that in recent days Colonel Gaddafi declared a ceasefire which was promptly violated," he said. "We said then we would judge him on his actions not his words - and we will do so again."

Russia, which abstained on the UN vote, has criticised the coalition actions as "indiscriminate". Arab support for the coalition is waning, despite the Arab League's vote in favour of an internationally enforced no-fly zone.

Libya's migrant workers made up the majority of the estimated 300,000 people that had left prior to the UN resolution. However, Firas Kayal, the UNHCR public information officer at Tunisia's Choucha transit camp, said at that stage that he believed that 80 to 85% of migrant workers remain in the country, and therefore "Things could, of course, change drastically, so we have to be ready".

Aid agencies have appealed to Libya's neighbours to keep their borders open. Andrew Harper, also of the UNHCR, told a news briefing that "While it has been largely a migratory flow so far, it could move very quickly into a (Libyan) refugee flow".

The UNHCR said earlier in the month (March 11) that evacuation flights for migrant workers fleeing Libya were not keeping pace with numbers crossing to Tunisia and Egypt.

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