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UN to evacuate staff from Egypt

The United Nations began to evacuate much of its staff in Egypt on Thursday, while more than 4,000 passengers made their escape through Cairo airport a day after the protests gripping the Egyptian capital degenerated into a bloody street brawl.

The U.N. was sending in two chartered aircraft to take 350 staff and their families to Cyprus, said Rolando Gomez, a spokesman for its peacekeeping mission on the Mediterranean island. Each aircraft was to make two roundtrips to Cyprus.

"The staff will be temporarily relocated due to the security situation in Egypt," Gomez told The Associated Press, adding that arrangements had been made to accommodate up to 600 staff and their families at hotels in Cyprus. It was unclear whether they would remain on the island or head to other destinations.

Gomez said some U.N. staff will remain in Egypt to carry out "essential functions."

Cairo airport officials said the first U.N. flight left with 130 U.N. staff and their dependents. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

The United States said more than 1,900 Americans had been evacuated in three days of flights. Two flights were loaded for Thursday, with the first departing with about 230 people bound for Frankfurt, Germany. The State Department said that even citizens whose passports had expired within the past decade could go directly to the airport, reflecting the urgency of evacuating people even if their travel documents were not in order.

In total, about 5,000 passengers of various nationalities had massed at the airport's departure terminals, waiting for commercial or government-chartered flights. By the start of the 5 p.m. curfew, there were only about 700 left at the airport.

The congestion that had transformed the airport into a chaotic camp had largely eased by Wednesday. It appeared that most of those who had wanted to leave had already done so before Wednesday's violence between pro-government supporters and anti-government protesters.

About 40 flights were expected to leave, including charter flights, compared to more than 90 on Wednesday, airport officials said.

EgyptAir, the national carrier, was still flying just a fraction of its normal flights. On Thursday, 26 international flights and 17 domestic flights were scheduled, an increase from previous days that appeared to come as the government eased the curfew.

The spike in flights was evident in figures from Europe's air traffic agency, Eurocontrol. The agency said its statistics for the past week show a jump of 60 percent over the same period last year.

"The charter and business aviation market segments in particular (are) adding many flights," David Marsh, the agency's head of forecasts and traffic analysis, said in an interview. "A lot more charters are going in than scheduled flights, ferrying people out."

A total of 79 carriers serve Egypt.

The unrest that has gripped the country since Jan. 25 is battering the tourism sector. Travel companies have reported cancellations of trips as far forward as April — dealing a major blow to a country where tourism brought in close to $11 billion in revenues in the first ten months of 2010.

Italy's foreign minister said 4,500 Italian citizens had been evacuated from Egypt since the protests began while some 14,000 remain in the country. Austria, meanwhile, was sending a military plane on standby basis in Crete until officials decide where in Egypt to send it to pick up stranded Austrians. On Wednesday, a military plane from the country evacuated 62 people, 59 of whom were Austrians.

Britain said a government charter flight was returning from Cairo on Thursday with 180 British nationals, and confirmed it would send a second plane to Egypt to help Britons who are unable to book seats on commercial airliners.

The unrest was also hitting tour companies. European tour operator TUI said the upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia — where an uprising weeks earlier led to the ouster of that country's authoritarian president — could cost it up to 30 million pounds ($48.5 million). Most of the losses are expected to come from the Egypt operation.

Thomas Cook Airlines Scandinavia, the carrier for Danish tour operator Spies, said it is flying guests from all Danish tour operators out of Egypt — a total 3,222 of guests and guides — on Friday.

Spies and fellow Danish tour operator Star Tour decided to cancel all trips to Egypt until March 31. Instead guests will be offered trip to Gran Canaria, Tenerifa and Fuerteventura in Spain.

Cairo's international appeal had been based not just on its famed museums and monuments, but also its relative safety compared to other major cities worldwide. For now, that perception has been shattered.

Airport officials said five Egyptians were detained Thursday for carrying weapons in their luggage. The five men were coming from Kenya and had stashed knives and whips in their baggage, apparently to defend themselves with upon their arrival in the capital, the officials said.

In addition, five Chinese journalists were briefly detained after authorities found bullet proof vests in their luggage, along with more than 20 walkie-talkies and satellite phones, the officials said. They were allowed to leave after the equipment was confiscated.

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Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia, Cyprus, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna, David Stringer in London, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Victor Simpson in Rome contributed to the report.