International Operation Name: N/A
International Operation Dates: N/A
Mandating Organization: Government of Canada
Region Name: Africa
Canadian Operation Name: Operation MOBILE
Canadian Operation Dates: 25 February 2011 - 8 March 2011
To evacuate Canadian nationals and other foreigners from Libya
December 2010, in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi began loading his wooden cart with the fruits and vegetables he would try to sell that day. As the sole breadwinner for his widowed mother and six siblings, he was crucial to his family's survival. But, he didn't have a permit to sell his goods. When police requested he turn over his cart he refused and was allegedly slapped by a female police officer. Humiliated in public, Bouazizi marched to a government building and set himself on fire.
His actions set of protests in Sidi Bouzid that day, captured on cell phones and shared on the internet. Within days, protests erupted around Tunisia; within a month President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled the country. The protests in Tunisia set off protests in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen becoming violent with calls for regime change in these nations. Thus began the Arab Spring.
In Libya, anti-government protesters began an armed revolution to overthrow the regime of President Muammar Gadhafi. In response, government forces began to use violence against civilians in an attempt to intimidate all opposition. With civilians being targeted by pro-Gadhafi forces, the United Nations as well as nations with nationals in Libya took note.
As protests spread across Libya, foreigners in the country began to be caught in the cross-fire. In a week an estimated 1,000 civilians were killed in fighting between the pro-and anti-government forces. The killing of a Turkish construction worker while he was climbing a crane added to the concerns about safety. An estimate prior to the conflict suggested that there were over 2.5 million foreign workers in Libya with Egyptians forming the largest number at about 1 million. There were around 60,000 Bangladeshi in Libya, 30,000 Chinese nationals, many of whom were oil workers; and Turkey had 25,000. The foreigners in Libya were from around the world – mostly from Africa, but also Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East and North America. The situation deteriorated to the point that foreign nationals had to be evacuated to avoid becoming casualties in a situation that was deteriorating into civil war.
Foreigners were already fleeing the country. By 22 February, about 5,000 Egyptians had crossed the border back into Egypt while another 10,000 were waiting to cross. Other foreign nationals were taking commercial flights out of the country. However, as the level of violence increased, aircraft were not always able to land in Tripoli as the ramp space was limited because of all the aircraft already there to evacuate people. In other cases, security concerns caused some airlines to cancel scheduled flights.
In the face of the violence spreading throughout Libya, more than 20 governments around the world began preparations to evacuate their citizens from the country. France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia and Serbia were sending aircraft and had received permission to land at Tripoli. Turkey sent two ferries to evacuate its 25,000 citizens, the United States chartered another and issued notices to its citizens that those wishing to leave should meet at the port in Tripoli. The United Kingdom chartered an aircraft and redeployed HMS Cumberland in preparation for evacuations
By 22 February the evacuations were well underway, with the two Turkish ferries evacuating 3,000 Turks. Four Russian aircraft evacuated 405 Russian citizens as well as hundreds of Serbian and Turkish citizens while two French military aircraft were filled with French citizens. A Dutch military aircraft had evacuated 32 Dutch citizens and 50 from other nations while a Ukrainian military aircraft was picking up 170 Ukrainians. However, Bangladesh recommended that its nationals in Libya, who numbered around 60,000, should remain in the country and wait for an improvement in the conditions there.
China had about 30,000 nationals in Libya of whom about 12,000 were evacuated to Egypt or on charter flights back to China while Greek passenger ships were on their way to evacuate more Chinese. China also redeployed the frigate Xuzhou from anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden to the waters off Libya. South Korea also redeployed a warship from anti-piracy operations to evacuate its citizens. There were about 7,500 European Union citizens in Libya at the time the evacuations started of whom 6,500 requested evacuation. While many fled to neighbouring Tunisia, 4,400 were evacuated from Libya.
The first priority for aircraft was the citizens of that aircraft's nation. However, when aircraft were able to land, they took onboard citizens of other countries if the space was available. Canadians were evacuated on flights from Britain, Malta and Spain. For example, the Spanish flight included British, Mexican and Portuguese nationals. The carriage of other nationals even extended to ferry operations. A Chinese-chartered ferry took on 900 Bangladeshi, Nepali and Vietnamese workers from Benghazi and took them to Crete. However, Human Rights Watch also reported instances of ferry crews denying access, in some cases using violence to enforce their orders.
As the fighting continued between pro- and anti-government forces in Libya, criminal intent or anti-foreigner bias may have been behind some of the attacks on foreigners. At some checkpoints, fleeing foreigners had to bribe their way through armed personnel in civilian clothes. In other cases there was violence directed against them. For example, on 25 February a Turkish construction company was attacked by a group of Libyans who broke property, stole goods and attacked foreign workers.
The evacuation efforts were also not without their risk, hence troops sometimes went along as protection for the aircrew and evacuees. Three Dutch marines from the Dutch frigate HNLMS Tromp were taken hostage by pro-government forces when they landed at Sirte as part of an effort to evacuate European workers from the city. The threat was sufficiently high that when three British C-130 Hercules landed in the desert to airlift British oil workers, personnel from the Special Air Service were onboard, this being their second such flight. One of the aircraft was hit by gunfire.
For many others fleeing by land, there would have been grave worries at the border crossing with Tunisia. By early March about 40,000 people were stranded on the Libyan side of the border as Tunisian authorities closed the border for several hours each day. The Tunisians simply did not have the capacity to process the large number of people fleeing Libya.
As the fighting became ever violent, the evacuation by foreign governments virtually ceased. When NATO became involved in the civil war, there were still thousands of foreigners trapped in some of the hot-spots. However, the effort to remove them was slow as there were only a few ships conducting the evacuations. When NATO ended its campaign in October, there were still foreign workers in Libya.
There were over 1,400 Canadian nationals in Libya, most of whom were working for major corporations such as SNC-Lavalin and Suncor. Canada's efforts to evacuate its nationals were underway by 23 February with two chartered aircraft. The first aircraft was supposed to fly from Rome to Tripoli on the morning of 24 February, but was unable to get insurance and hence never left. The second charter aircraft arrived at Tripoli airport on the morning of the 26th but left empty when there were no Canadians at the airport.
In the face of the violence in Libya and the problems evacuating Canadians, the minister for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) Lawrence Cannon announced that the government was making arrangements to evacuate Canadians in Libya. This included diverting to Rome a Canadian Armed Forces CC-177 Globemaster from its Trenton-Afghanistan-Trenton supply run. Two CC-130 Hercules from 436 Squadron departed Trenton on 27 February, bound for Malta to assist with the evacuation.
Joint Task Force Malta (JTFM) was stood up on 25 February operating from a hotel in Valetta, Malta and operating in conjunction with DFAIT representatives. On 27 February, JTFM was augmented by a 13-member Operational Liaison and Reconnaissance Team accompanied by medical staff to assist evacuees, and military police to provide security. The next day JTFM Malta reached its full operational capacity of about 72 personnel which included the aircrew and ground support personnel. On 1 March, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that HMCS Charlottetown would depart Halifax to assist in the evacuation of Canadians.
The British Embassy in Malta became the coordination centre for one of the multi-national evacuation efforts. Eight to 12 nations would meet regularly to coordinate efforts and thereby avoid issues such as aircraft returning from Libya almost empty, if not empty. For example, a Canadian-chartered flight arrived in Tripoli at 3:00 AM on Saturday, 26 February but left empty because there were no Canadians at the airport while airport congestion would not allow it to remain. Problems in coordinating departures included poor communications within cities and impassable roads to airports, such as was the case in Tripoli. As it was, communications from DFAIT indicated that Canadians wishing to be evacuated from Tripoli should be at the airport by 10:00 AM. Later that day (26 February), the CC-177 was able to evacuate 46 people, including 24 Canadians. Those onboard included Canadian and Australian diplomats.
A second CC-177 flight on 28 February evacuated one Canadian, one German, one Vietnamese and 44 Filipino and Thai workers from an oilfield near Ghat in southwest Libya. The CC-130s conducted three flights. The first, on 3 March evacuated 14 Canadians and more than a dozen other nationals from Tripoli. The other Hercules flights were on 5 and 8 March.
In the face of problems facing Canadians in being evacuated, some of them were finding other routes out of Libya. Some 207 Canadians were evacuated by air in flights arranged by other countries, a further 26 departed by ferry arranged by the United States. SNC-Lavalin evacuated its own employees out of Libya, using buses to take them from Benghazi to Cairo.
Landing rights were also an issue as they were decided by the Libyan government. The United States had initially been denied landing rights in Libya. The Canadian CC-177 was similarly denied landing rights for its initial evacuation request. In another case of a flight being cancelled, a Canadian CC-130 Hercules had to turn back when half-way to Tripoli because of a shortage of ramp space at the airport there.
While Canadian authorities would not specify what they were doing, they did admit that members of Joint Task Force 2 were deployed. Defence Minister MacKay did say that the Canadian military had authorized force protection that was included in the CC-130 and CC-177 crews.
The CC-130J Hercules flight conducted by Joint Task Force Malta on 8 March 2011 was the last military evacuation flight out of Tripoli International Airport. Over 11 days of operations, Joint Task Force Malta rescued 61 Canadians and 130 other foreign nationals aboard six evacuation flights — two by CC-177 Globemaster and four by CC-130J Hercules.
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