LONDON – British military planes entered Libyan air space to rescue oil workers and others from desert locations Saturday in a daring and secret mission meant to save those unable to flee escalating violence.
The C-130 Hercules planes, carrying Britons and other nationals, safely landed in Malta after picking up the civilians south of the eastern Libyan port of Benghazi, Defense Secretary Liam Fox said.
The rescue mission was bold because few planes have been able to fly through Libyan air space. It was not immediately clear if it was a British special forces mission, but the government has not ruled out using the SAS to evacuate Libyan oil fields and rescue trapped Britons.
The mission apparently took place with great secrecy. Rescued oil worker, Peter Dingle, told the BBC that workers were told to stay quiet.
"We knew this morning that the military was coming to pick us up, but we weren't allowed to phone home — there were no lines anyway — because when you inform the families it gets out in the media, and the British military need to keep this as quiet as possible," Dingle said.
Fox said the frigate HMS Cumberland was returning to Benghazi from Malta to evacuate any remaining "entitled persons" from there.
The mission is likely to give a boost to a government reeling from complaints in recent days about the ineptitude of its earlier efforts to evacuate citizens trapped in the chaos. Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to apologize as Britons who escaped offered televised accounts of their desperate efforts to flee amid the breakdown of law and order.
But others trying to get their employees out expressed dismay that the rescue had not been better coordinated — so that oil workers near pick up points could have gotten there in time.
"It would have been helpful to know," Gavin De Salis, the chairman of British-based OPS International, an oil field services company.
De Salis has had to put about 450 workers on buses to pull them out of the country amid shortages of food and water.
"They have an uncomfortable six-day journey," he said.
Fox made the announcement as the U.N. Security Council met in an urgent session to consider sanctions to punish Libya's regime for violent attacks against anti-government protesters.
One of those who was rescued said the military plane he boarded in Libya was initially supposed to carry around 65 people, but quickly grew to more than double that.
"It was very cramped but we were just glad to be out of there and getting on the flight," Patrick Eyles, a 43-year-old Briton who arrived on one of the C-130s, said at Malta International Airport.
Britain has been among the countries pushing for tougher sanctions, including an arms embargo and travel ban on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who is under pressure by the international community to halt the crackdown on his people.
Other Britons returning to London from Libya after being evacuated spoke of the chaos enveloping the North African country.
"Gangs of young Libyans had knives and machetes," said 51-year-old Paul Ellis, who works on the Great Man-Made River Project in Libya. "What they wanted was any valuables — money, laptops and mobiles. We just gave them those and the keys to cars and they just left us alone to some extent."
Mediterranean ports, meanwhile, overflowed with thousands of evacuees from Libya, and thousands more foreigners were still scrambling to flee the North African nation by sea, air or land as the security situation around the capital Tripoli deteriorated.
More than 2,800 Chinese workers landed in Heraklion on the Greek island of Crete aboard a Greek ship. Further to the west, another 2,200 Chinese arrived in Valletta, the capital of Malta, after a long journey from the eastern Libyan port of Benghazi. Hours earlier, in the dark of night, a U.S-chartered ferry dropped off over 300 passengers in Valletta who spent three days waiting to leave Libya's chaotic capital.
The sheer numbers of foreigners leaving Libya as Gadhafi's regime attacks anti-government protesters has been staggering. As of Saturday, at least 16,000 Chinese, 15,000 Turks and 1,400 Italians had been evacuated, most working in the construction and oil industries.
In addition, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council that some 22,000 people have fled across the Libyan border to Tunisia and another 15,000 crossed the border into Egypt.
Col. Malek Mihoub, a Tunisian security forces official, said that "despite the good intentions of those present," aid groups like the Red Crescent, local authorities and the Tunisian army have become overwhelmed by the flow of people fleeing Libya.
Meanwhile, France's Foreign Ministry said Saturday that the French embassy in Tripoli has been closed temporarily due to the unrest. It said a French Air Force flight took 122 people — including the entire embassy staff among the 28 French nationals on board — to France on Saturday.
In an accord with Russia, France said it is temporarily conferring its interests in Libya to the Russian Embassy in Tripoli, the ministry statement said.
Mark D. Colson in Luqa, Malta and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.