Cairo airport a scene of chaos as foreigners flee
Published: Monday, January 31, 2011 at 8:20 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 31, 2011 at 8:20 a.m.
CAIRO — Cairo's international airport was a scene of chaos and confusion Monday as thousands of foreigners sought to flee the unrest in Egypt and countries around the world scrambled to send in planes to fly their citizens out.
Nerves frayed, shouting matches erupted and some passengers even had a fistfight as thousands crammed inside Cairo airport's new Terminal 3 seeking a flight home. In an attempt to reduce tensions, the airport's departures board stopped announcing flight times — but the move simply fueled anger over canceled or delayed flights.
Making matters worse, check-in counters were poorly staffed because many EgyptAir employees had been unable to get to work due to a 3 p.m.-to-8 a.m. curfew and traffic breakdowns across the Egyptian capital.
"It's an absolute zoo, what a mess," said Justine Khanzadian, 23, a graduate student from the American University of Cairo who was among those waiting at the airport for hours to leave Egypt. "I decided to leave because of the protests, the government here is just not stable enough to stay."
By midday, an announcement filtered through the crowd instructing groups of Danish, German, Chinese, British and Canadian passengers that their governments had sent planes to evacuate them, prompting a nervous stampede toward the gates.
A chartered flight evacuating about 150 American citizens was expected on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus sometime Monday afternoon. Larnaca Airport spokesman Adamos Aspris said the flight was delayed due to heavy traffic at Cairo's airport.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Janice Jacobs has said it will take several flights over the coming days to fly out the thousands of Americans who want to leave Egypt, through Europe.
EgyptAir resumed its flights Monday morning after a roughly 14-hour break because of the curfew and its inability to field enough crew. Over 20 hours, only 26 of about 126 EgyptAir flights operated, airport officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
The officials said many countries were working to evacuate their citizens, with Turkey sending four flights, Israel and Russia sending two planes each and the Czech Republic one. They said those additional flights had helped ease the airport's swelling and restless crowds, but those gains were likely to be short-lived as other foreigners and Egyptians poured in.
Hundreds of Indian nationals were evacuated, with 316 arriving Monday in Mumbai on board a special Air India flight and another 275 expected to reach Mumbai later in the day.
China sent two planes Monday and was sending two more charter flights Tuesday to help pick up an estimated 500 Chinese stranded in Cairo. It issued a travel warning and requested that its citizens not travel to Egypt, according to the Chinese Embassy in Cairo, which also handed out food and water to Chinese at Cairo's airport.
The foreign ministries in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark on Sunday advised against all nonessential travel to Egypt and tour companies canceled trips to the country until Feb. 23.
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's Foreign Office estimates about there are around 30,000 U.K. tourists and long-term residents in Egypt, but said Monday it has no plans to evacuate British citizens. Foreign Secretary William Hague has advised against all but essential travel to Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Suez and recommended that people currently in those cities leave on commercial flights when they can.
British Prime Minister David Cameron's office said, unlike tourists from the United States and other nations, most Britons are on vacation at beach resorts on the Red Sea — which so far have remained largely unaffected by pro-democracy protests.
SAS Denmark said it would fly home some 60 Danes stuck at Cairo airport, who were supposed to return to Denmark with EgyptAir on Sunday but were left stranded.
Indonesia was sending a plane to Cairo to start evacuating some 6,150 Indonesian citizens — mostly students and workers. Those who decided to stay behind should "remain alert, avoid crowded places, and communicate with our embassy," said Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, urging those still planning to visit Egypt to reconsider.
An Azerbaijan flight carrying 80 adults, 23 children and the body of an Azeri Embassy accountant killed in the unrest arrived in Baku.
Air France canceled its daily flight from Paris to Cairo on Monday. From Tuesday, its daily flight to Cairo will make a "technical stop" in Beirut, and was increasing its capacity on return flights — which will be direct — by an extra 200 seats to help bring passengers back to France.
Portugal sent a C-130 military transport plane to evacuate its citizens, and Greece put military planes on standby.
Czech travel agencies were canceling their trips to Egypt, and the foreign ministry warned against nonessential travel. There were about 1,000 Czech tourists in Egypt.
Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia, Cyprus. Staff in Associated Press bureaus around the world contributed to this report.
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