Wed, Feb 02, 2011 - Page 6 News List

UNREST IN NORTH AFRICA: Evacuees describe Cairo airport chaos

PAY UP OR STAY:Many airport employees can’t get to work because of a curfew, while police are demanding bribes to allow foreigners to enter the airport terminal

AP, FRANKFURT, Germany

Thousands of foreigners have fled the unrest in Egypt, boarding special flights home or to nearby Mediterranean airports, many still in shock as the chaos of last week spread to airport lounges.

“People holding tickets had difficulties getting on the plane, because the airport in Cairo is pure chaos,” Canadian tourist Tristin Hutton said yesterday, after his plane landed at Germany’s Frankfurt Airport. “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 US$2,000 for a policeman at the door ... He would not let us pass without paying.”

“We did not see the protests coming. All of us have been surprised,” said Brian Johnson, deputy head of the Canadian International School in Cairo, who left Egypt along with 34 of his colleagues.

As countries 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.

Making matters worse, check-in counters were poorly staffed because many EgyptAir employees had been unable to get to work because of a 3pm to 8am curfew and traffic breakdowns across Cairo.

The US Department of State said it had evacuated more than 1,200 Americans aboard government-chartered planes and expects to fly out roughly 1,400 more in the coming days.

US Department of State spokesman Phillip Crowley said by the end of Monday six planes had flown nine flights ferrying US 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 on Monday. She described the violent scenes 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.”

Greek oil worker Markos Loukogiannakis, who arrived in Athens on a flight carrying 181 passengers, said confusion reigned at Cairo airport and travelers had to negotiate a string of checkpoints just to get there.

“In a 22 kilometer 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.”

One big question is 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 such as Hurghada or Sharm el-Sheik. Still, food shortages continue to be felt at some Egyptian resorts and some restaurants are refusing to serve foreigners.

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