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Tripoli airport, packed with people attempting to leave Libya, on Feb. 22, 2011. (Reuters)
Tripoli airport, packed with people attempting to leave Libya, on Feb. 22, 2011. (Reuters)

Chaotic situation hampers Canadians' exodus from Libya Add to ...

Ali Suleiman's evacuation from Libya began Monday in a remote, desert oil field when the Canadian doctor was surrounded by 20 armed thieves firing their pistols into the air.

One bandit pressed the butt of his gun into the chin of Dr. Suleiman's co-worker, demanding they hand over their cash and the keys to their trucks. The doctors and oil workers complied, and the thieves drove off.

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The next morning, Dr. Suleiman piled into an ambulance and headed for the airport in Tripoli. The journey that should have taken two hours took 12 as the Libyan-born physician zigzagged across the country to avoid checkpoints. He collected his nine-year-old son, Mohamad, and after seeking shelter for the night at a medical clinic in Tripoli, finally arrived at the airport where frustrated crowds verged on violence.

"In the airport, there are thousands and thousands of people. They are shouting. For days they are waiting in the airport and they don't get any airplanes to take them [away]" Dr. Suleiman said.

Fourteen harrowing hours later, he boarded a flight bound for London's Gatwick airport.

On Friday, Dr. Suleiman was one of the first Canadian citizens to arrive in Toronto as the political situation in Libya unravels.

Stepping off an afternoon flight, the father of five said he was relieved to be home, but looked haggard and was unable to shake the memories of the last few days.

"It's the first time in my life [I've seen]somebody shot, you know? It's so scary," he said in the arrivals bay at Pearson International Airport. "Since that time, I couldn't sleep. I have to take medication so I can sleep."

His tale underscored the anarchy erupting across Libya as thousands try to escape the spreading violence.

In recent days, tens of thousands have poured across the borders of Egypt and Tunisia.

Meanwhile, foreign governments are scrambling to evacuate their citizens from a country with patchy communications, where pro-government forces are waging violent crackdowns and flights are often cancelled.

Ottawa chartered a second plane to Tripoli Friday, which was scheduled to land last night after an earlier flight left empty because there were no Canadians or citizens of other like-minded countries at the airport waiting to be evacuated.

In interviews with sources in Libya, and several who managed to make their way out on commercial flights, it appeared the embassy was having difficulty informing Canadians in Tripoli about the flights.

"The Canadian embassy cannot call these people because the phone lines are disconnected. So it's very tough. … Unless the Canadian government tells them to go there then they wouldn't know. The airport is very chaotic," said Semussi, a Canadian-Libyan who managed to get his wife and their two-year-old daughter out on a Moroccan Air flight that landed in Montreal Friday morning.

Other Canadians found flights to countries such as Malta and Spain, where they hoped to find further connections to Canada.

SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based company that is overseeing a number of construction projects in Libya, however, did manage to evacuate a number of its employees from the North African country but, for safety reasons, would not say how it is getting them out.

"We will be able to give more details once the evacuation is 100-per-cent completed," said Leslie Quinton, a company spokeswoman.

In Tripoli, Canadian embassy officials were posted at the airport, ready to help Canadians in distress.



As of 2 p.m. ET, the number of Canadians who had been evacuated was 207. There were 344 who were registered with the Canadian embassy in Tripoli.

However, in Semussi's family's case, the Canadian government moved too slowly. He scheduled the flight back for his wife and their daughter from his home in Ottawa, relying on a commercial travel agent.

"I was told she could get on a flight that was leaving in three hours. She had 45 minutes to get to the airport. She was lucky," he recalled.



When she arrived at the arrivals hall, there was no help in sight. Finally, a Libyan police officer helped.

"He told her to grab his jacket and hold on. She had a bag and her a two-year-old. Her passport was checked 15 times and it was nerve-racking. There were a lot of emotions," Semussi said.

Eventually she and her daughter boarded a flight to Casablanca, arriving in Montreal at 1 a.m. Friday.

While they escaped the immediate dangers in Libya, they are haunted by worries over the fate of the family members they left behind who don't hold dual passports.

"They didn't have the chance that she had. [My wife]feels kind of guilty, but she wanted out and I wanted them out," Semussi said.

With a report from Gloria Galloway

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