US begins relief operation for refugees in Tunisia

The U.S. on Friday launched a multipronged effort to assist throngs of foreign workers who fled the fighting in Libya, sending two Air Force cargo planes to deliver blankets and other supplies in neighboring Tunisia. Plans were made to fly an unspecified number of refugees from camps along the Libya-Tunisia border on Saturday.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that in addition to the military cargo flights to Djerba, Tunisia, the U.S. Agency for International Development chartered two civilian aircraft to help repatriate foreign workers who have fled Libya amid an armed insurrection against the government of Moammar Gadhafi.

Even with the emphasis on humanitarian rather that overt military action, the risk of encountering hostility and violence along the border could not be discounted. It was not clear Friday how U.S. and other international efforts to fly foreign workers away from the border area would be carried out.

"We know that there is a lot of confusion on the ground that is often difficult for us to sort through to get to what the actual facts are," Clinton said. "But the United States remains deeply concerned about the welfare of the Libyan people. Both the Libyans and those who are fleeing Libya are the subject of our outreach."

Also Friday, the Treasury Department said Secretary Timothy Geithner would visit Germany on Tuesday for talks with German officials about global efforts to pressure the Gadhafi government through economic penalties.

Geithner told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that the U.S. has frozen about $32 billion in Libyan assets.

President Barack Obama declared on Thursday that Gadhafi must leave, and he said his administration was considering a full range of options, including the imposition of a "no-fly" zone over Libya.

But Obama's emphasis was on humanitarian relief, and that was where the U.S. military began its efforts Friday.

Two U.S. amphibious warships, the USS Kearsarge and the USS Ponce, were available in the Mediterranean but had not yet received orders to participate in humanitarian missions or military action, officials said.

Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan said the military has not been given orders beyond the two cargo flights Friday and a planned transport of refugees on the Tunisian side of the border on Saturday.

The overall military effort, including movements of ships and the dispatching of an additional 400 Marines to the Kearsarge, has been code-named Operation Odyssey Dawn, Lapan said. On Friday the extra Marines were at a naval base at Souda Bay on the Greek island of Crete, the spokesman said.

Two C-130 cargo planes flew from Ramstein Air Base in Germany and picked up relief supplies at a USAID warehouse in Italy before heading to Tunisia. Lapan said the supplies included 4,000 blankets, 9,600 10-liter water containers and 40 rolls of plastic sheeting that can be used for shelter.

The planes were expected to fly later to Souda Bay and then return to Tunisia on Saturday to pick up an unspecified number of stranded Egyptians and fly them home, he said.

Pressure for the U.S. to prepare for a more robust response to the Libya crisis continued to mount on Capitol Hill. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., issued a joint statement Friday urging the White House not to forget the lessons of Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, where the U.S. and the international community were slow to respond to widespread violence and humanitarian disaster.

"We know that the international community has in the past been too slow to react to situations like the one unfolding in Libya - with awful and unspeakable costs in human life," McCain and Lieberman said. "For both moral and strategic reasons, we must not repeat this mistake."


Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper and Martin Crutsinger in Washington and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.