Published January 31, 2011
CAIRO – Amid scenes of chaos at Cairo's international airport, thousands of foreigners fled the unrest in Egypt, boarding special flights home or to nearby Mediterranean airports.
As countries around the world scrambled to send in planes to fly their citizens out on Monday, nerves and shouting and shoving matches erupted as passengers crammed into Cairo airport's new Terminal 3 seeking a flight home.
"It's an absolute zoo, what a mess," said Justine Khanzadian, 23, a graduate student from the American University of Cairo. "I decided to leave because of the protests, the government here is just not stable enough to stay."
Making matters worse, check-in counters were poorly staffed because many EgyptAir employees had been unable to get to work due to a 3 p.m.-to-8 a.m. curfew and traffic breakdowns across the Egyptian capital.
The U.S. State Department said it has evacuated more than 1,200 Americans aboard government-chartered planes and expects to fly out roughly 1,400 more in the coming days.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that by the end of Monday six planes will have flown nine flights ferrying U.S. citizens from Cairo to Larnaca, Cyprus; Athens, Greece; and Istanbul, Turkey.
New York-based Pamela Huyser, who had traveled to Egypt for a conference, arrived in Larnaca, late Monday. She described the violent scene she witnessed from her ninth-floor hotel balcony in Cairo.
"You cannot even believe what we saw," she said. "We saw people looting, we saw gunfire, people shooting other people. A lot of people working in our hotel, they came out with sticks and knives and bats and they protected us from getting looted."
Earlier, a U.S. military plane landed in Lanarca with 42 people — mostly staff at U.S. embassies in Africa and elsewhere who had also traveled to Egypt for a conference.
Additional flights were also being arranged in Turkey and neighbor Greece, where authorities announced plans to increase coast guard patrols to deter immigrants from troubled north African countries from reaching the European Union member.
Greek oil worker Markos Loukogiannakis, who arrived in Athens on a flight carrying 181 passengers including 65 U.S. citizens, said confusion reigned at Cairo airport and travelers had to negotiate a string of checkpoints just to get there.
"In a 22-kilometer (14-mile) route from our suburb to the airport we had to get through 19 checkpoints, including nine manned by civilians," he said. "There were lots of people gathering at the airport and it was very difficult to get in."
He said security had deteriorated sharply over the past three days in Cairo after police withdrew from the streets.
In Germany, a special Lufthansa plane arrived in Frankfurt late Monday night with evacuees from Cairo.
Among the passengers was Guenther Kremer from Troisdorf in western Germany. He told reporters that the situation in Cairo was "chaotic."
"The big problem was, that one didn't have any information, one didn't know what is going to happen the next day — am I getting out or not," he said.
"We had to wait for three days to fly out — Egypt Air had canceled, so we were quite happy when Lufthansa showed up today and got us out."
In a geopolitical shift, even Iraq decided it would evacuate its citizens, sending three planes to Egypt — including the prime minister's plane — to bring home for free those who wish to return. Thousands of Iraqis had once fled to Egypt to escape the violence in their own country.
About 800 Iraqis had left Cairo by Monday afternoon, said Capt. Mohammed al-Moussawi, a crew member for the prime minister's plane. He said the flights would continue until all those who wished to return had done so.
Nearly 320 Indian nationals arrived in Mumbai on a special Air India flight and another 275 were expected later. An Azerbaijan flight carrying 103 people and the body of an Azeri Embassy accountant killed in the unrest arrived in Baku, and Turkey sent five planes to Cairo and Alexandria, evacuating 1,548 Turkish nationals.
Air Canada said a flight chartered by the Canadian government landed in Frankfurt, Germany, on Monday, carrying 174 Canadians plus 36 other foreigners, mostly Americans and Australians. A second Canadian-chartered flight was due to depart from Cairo on Tuesday.
Tristin Hutton, a bush pilot from Fort Francis, Ontario, who had been visiting his sister at the Canadian Embassy in Cairo, described a chaotic scene at the Cairo airport.
"People holding tickets had difficulties getting on the plane, because the airport in Cairo is pure chaos," the 44-year-old said.
"The terminals are full of panicking people. The ground staff is disappearing and at the gate, just before entering, we all together had to collect $2,000 for a policeman at the door," he said. "He would not let us pass without paying."
Indonesia was sending a plane to Cairo to start evacuating some 6,150 Indonesians — mostly students and workers — and SAS Denmark was flying home some 60 Danes.
China sent four planes to help pick up an estimated 500 Chinese stranded in Cairo and warned citizens not travel to Egypt.
That echoed earlier warnings from Britain, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and the Czech Republic, which all advised against all nonessential travel to Egypt. Many European tour companies canceled trips to Egypt until Feb. 23, while others left the cancellations open until further notice.
One big question was what to do with the tens of thousands of tourists in other parts of Egypt. Tour operators say they will fly home all their customers this week when their holidays end, or on extra flights, stressing there has not been any unrest in Red Sea resort cities like Hurghada or Sharm el-Sheik. Still, food shortages were starting to be felt at some Egyptian resorts and some restaurants were refusing to serve foreigners.
All major German tour operators — among them TUI AG and Thomas Cook's German subsidiary — canceled day trips to Cairo and Luxor.
Britain estimated there were 30,000 U.K. tourists and long-term residents in Egypt but said it had no plans to evacuate them. Foreign Secretary William Hague warned people against all but essential travel to Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Suez.
The Danish company shipping company A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S chartered a plane to pick up relatives of its Danish employees in Egypt. The company said there were no terminal operations in Egypt on Monday and the Maersk Line, Safmarine and Damco offices were closed.
Air France canceled its daily flight from Paris to Cairo on Monday and planned to increase its capacity Tuesday by an extra 200 seats.
Portugal sent a C-130 military transport plane to evacuate its citizens. Greece was sending three C-130 military transport planes to Alexandria on Tuesday and the Polish airline LOT was flying to Cairo.
Hadjicostis reported from Larnaca, Cyprus. Staff in Associated Press bureaus around the world contributed to this report.