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African migrants fleeing Libya in distress

Thousands of migrant workers who fled fighting in Libya are stranded in a remote desert town in northern Chad, in what an international aid group warned Friday could become a humanitarian catastrophe.

More than 3,800 Chadians are stuck in Zouarke, a small town in Chad's arid mountainous region near the border with Niger, after traveling for days through the extreme heat of the Sahara desert, the International Organization for Migration said. The migrants are said to include 310 women and children. Dozens are sick or injured, and at least four people have died after drinking water from contaminated wells.

"The situation in Zouarke could become a catastrophe," IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy told reporters in Geneva.

The Africans, who were working in Libya when the revolt against ruler Moammar Gadhafi erupted, had to endure a tortuous road journey via Niger, crammed onto overloaded trucks, hungry, thirsty, some injured. Two children are believed to have died from suffocation, and at least four people have died from contaminated water, the IOM said.

They are the latest among hundreds, probably thousands, who have died in desperate attempts to get away from the fighting — and escape charges that they were fighting for Gadhafi as foreign mercenaries.

Many of the 2.5 million foreign workers in Libya, including 1 million Egyptians, fled by air, road and sea in the first weeks after the Feb. 17 uprising against Gadhafi's four-decade rule.

Soon flights were canceled, and then a no-fly zone imposed by the United Nations to prevent Gadhafi's forces from bombing civilians halted the airlifts.

More than 10,000 who took to the seas in overcrowded vessels have arrived on islands off Italy, telling horror stories of hundreds who died along the way. Some said they were forced to board non-seaworthy vessels at gunpoint by Gadhafi's soldiers.

Gadhafi's regime has said it cannot patrol its own seas because of NATO bombing strikes. NATO fighter jets on Friday bombed the three ports in western Libya.

It's not known how many migrants remain trapped in Libya, which is just across the Mediterranean Sea from southern Europe.

Those who have fled, including Libyans, number about 339,000 in Tunisia, 262,000 in Egypt, 17,000 in Algeria and 61,200 in Niger, with smaller numbers in Italy, Malta and Sudan, the migration organization has said.

The IOM said the plight of the Chadian workers is especially serious.

"With no one to help them ... many are famished and suffering from exposure to extreme heat and dust. Water is also a key issue with the nearest well seven kilometers (about four miles) away."

Chad shares a border with Libya, but land mines along the Aouzou strip, left over from a war in the 1970s, make it too dangerous to cross there. Instead, the migrants searching for safety are forced to travel a roundabout route through neighboring Niger.

An IOM team carrying emergency medical supplies is en route to the group. They have been traveling since before April 20, when they started arriving at the border. The trucks are expected to reach Zouarke in a day or so.

This might be just the beginning.

IOM spokesman Chauzy told The Associated Press that up to 25,000 Chadians are believe to be poised to leave the southern Libyan town of Gatroun in the coming days.

"We are already struggling to cope with less than 4,000 people in this small town in northern Chad," he said. "What will happen if more people arrive from Libya? They could be completely overwhelming the limited facilities."

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Jordans reported from Geneva.