Cairo ramps up evacuations, 18,000 still stuck
Posted February 1, 2011 4:34 a.m. EST
Updated February 1, 2011 12:50 p.m. EST
CAIRO — Airport staff were scarce, food supplies were dwindling, flight information was non-existent — and some policemen even demanded substantial bribes before allowing foreigners to board their planes.
Cairo Airport was in complete disarray, overwhelmed with over 18,000 stranded passengers, tourists said Tuesday as they detailed a litany of woes. As they spoke, dozens of evacuation planes arrived from all over the world to handle the surging exodus of foreigners and Egyptians amid growing anti-government protests in Cairo.
The United States ordered non-essential U.S. government personnel and their families to leave Egypt and Germany expanded its travel warning to the entire country, including the Red Sea resort towns.
At least 35 charter flights left Cairo early Tuesday, ferrying thousands of passengers to Europe as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, an airport official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to brief the media.
The U.S. evacuated more than 1,200 Americans from Cairo on nine charter flights Monday and said it expected to fly out roughly 1,400 more in the coming days. Monday's flights ferried Americans to Larnaca, Cyprus; Athens, Greece; and Istanbul, Turkey, while flights Tuesday expanded to include Frankfurt, Germany.
The United States was also trying to arrange evacuation flights from the Egyptian cities of Aswan and Luxor.
National carrier EgyptAir has been canceling about 75 percent of its flights because it is unable to field the necessary crew amid the 17-hour emergency curfew imposed on the Egyptian capital.
Even having a ticket was no guarantee that tourists could get on a flight.
"People holding tickets had difficulties getting on the plane, because the airport in Cairo is pure chaos," Canadian tourist Tristin Hutton said Tuesday 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 $2,000 for a policeman at the door... He would not let us pass without paying," added the 44-year-old.
"We did not see the protests coming. All of us have been surprised," said Brian Johnson, the deputy head of the Canadian International School in the Egyptian capital, who left Egypt along with 34 of his colleagues.
Two University of North Carolina students were studying abroad at the American University in Cairo at the time of the uprising, school officials said. One of the students decided to follow the state department's evacuation procedure and with support from AUC was in Istanbul on Tuesday with a reservations to fly back to North Carolina on Wednesday.
Th other student decided to make alternative arrangements for getting out of the country and was at the Cairo airport on Tuesday awaiting a flight to Paris.
A Duke University graduate student, who was studying in Egypt, left the country on Monday.
New York-based Pamela Huyser, who had traveled to Egypt for a conference, arrived in Larnaca late Monday unnerved by the violence 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 including 65 U.S. citizens, said travelers had to negotiate 19 checkpoints Monday just to get to the Cairo airport.
Tens of thousands of European tourists flock to Egypt for winter holidays, and the big question tour operators and governments faced was what to do with 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 like Hurghada or Sharm el-Sheik.
Britain said Tuesday it was not ordering staff to leave Egypt, but confirmed most family members of diplomats had left the country. The U.K. is advising against travel to the cities of Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Suez.
However, about 15,000 British tourists staying in Red Sea coastal resorts have been told they are safe to continue their vacations.
Germany said Tuesday it was expanding its travel warning to include Red Sea resorts but not ordering evacuations. Some 1.2 million Germans visit Egypt each year, making it one of the top three sources for tourists to Egypt after Britain and Russia.
The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the vast majority of Russian tourists in Egypt — some 45,000 right now — had no plans to interrupt their vacations. Konstantin Shvartser of the tour agency Pegas Touristik said only 18 of about 18,000 vacationers who had bought a package tour had asked to leave early.
Inturist CEO Viktor Topolakarayev said 38 vacationers had originally asked on Sunday to be evacuated but many later them changed their minds.
"This shows that everything is calm in the resort areas and no one wants to leave," he said.
Some 90 Bulgarian tourists were flown to Sofia late Monday from the Red Sea resort of Hurghada, and many of them appeared unhappy that their holiday had been cut short.
"Where we were, there was no risk," one holidaymaker told reporters.
In other evacuations Tuesday, three Greek C-130 military transport planes with than 220 people left Alexandria for Athens; the first plane carrying Chinese evacuated from Cairo was landing in Beijing with 265 passengers; about 40 South Africans were expected back home and two Austrian planes landed in Vienna full of passengers from Egypt.
In a twist, even Iraq decided it would evacuate its citizens, sending three planes to Egypt — including the prime minister's plane — to bring home for free those who wish to return. Thousands of Iraqis had once fled to Egypt to escape the violence in their own country.
Staff in Associated Press bureaus around the world contributed to this report.