An attempt to evacuate desperate Irish citizens fleeing from the chaos of Libya’s descent into civil war failed on Wednesday night.
Hundreds of pro-democrary protestors have been killed in fighting in the main cities of Benghazi and Tripoli, the capital.
Some 31 Irish citizens are still in Tripoli, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs, and there are another 12 in Benghazi and six others in the desert.
A 25-seater CASA jet of the Air Corps [Irish Air Force] landed at Tripoli’s main airport on Wednesday night, but officers on board were not allowed to disembark because they did not have the necessary visas.
Irish people had been gathering in the terminal from early morning in anticipation of the flight. One Irish academic who later secured a seat on a flight intended for British oil workers said they had been told by department officials to look out for a contact who would be “very tall and dressed in Irish colours”.
With no sign of the contact, confusion reigned. At one stage, they boarded a bus and went out on to the tarmac to find the aircraft after they were told it was waiting -- but it had already taken off.
At a press briefing, Peadar Carpenter, co-ordinator of the emergency crisis centre in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, said the officers did not have visas when they landed and were unable to get them at the airport. He said they were “not allowed” to use mobile phones and could not contact anyone. What had happened was “very, very regretful”, he added.
It is understood the necessary visas have now been received by the Libyan embassy in London and a six-person emergency civil assistance team is to make another attempt to reach Tripoli on a regular commercial airline.
Amid criticism over the failure of the rescue mission, Secretary general of the department David Cooney insisted he was “very pleased” with how they had approached the crisis.
With no embassy staff on the ground, they couldn’t be there “to hold people’s hands”, he said. “The best advice we can give them is to try to get out on a commercial flight and be careful.”