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Tunisia says can't cope with Libya refugee influx

France evacuates nearly 50 French and British citizens from Libya by ship as the country is hit by fierce fighting between militias
Tunisian Foreign Affairs Minister Mongi Hamdi speaks with the foreign press on July 30, 2014 in Tunis (AFP)

Tunisia cannot cope with any massive influx of refugees who might seek to enter the country from strife-torn neighbouring Libya and will close its border if necessary, the foreign minister said Wednesday.

"Our country's economic situation is precarious, and we cannot cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees," as was the case during the 2011 revolution that ousted Libyan dictator Moamer Gaddafi, Mongi Hamdi told a press conference.

"We will close the border if the national interest requires it," he added.

Scores of people have been killed in recent days in fighting for control of the capital's international airport, knocked out of commission by the violence, and in the restive eastern city of Benghazi.

The capital Tripoli has also been hit by fierce fighting between rival militias since mid-July, and a rocket fired in the fighting ignited a fuel depot, which is still blazing.

The violence has led thousands of people to flee the country overland or by sea.

Hamdi did not give a total for the number of people who have entered the country during the latest violence, which erupted two weeks ago. However, he did speak of a daily figure of "5,000 to 6,000 in recent days".

At the same time, he did say that he had asked the UN to be present "in force to face the influx of refugees" if necessary.

Hamdi also said that Egyptian and Jordanian migrant workers fleeing Libya could only transit through Tunisia. He said the two countries had asked that their nationals seeking to leave should be allowed to transit through Tunisia.

The minister said the migrant workers should "be provided with plane tickets and should be directly transferred to the airports at Djerba and Gabes" in southern Tunisia.

French, British nationals evacuated from Libya

Meanwhile, France has evacuated nearly 50 French and British citizens from Libya by ship, French authorities said on Wednesday.

The French chief of staff said 40 French nationals and seven Britons were pulled out in the overnight operation and would be taken to the southern French port city of Toulon.

A French naval frigate was on standby during the evacuation.

The French ambassador was among those who left and the embassy has been temporarily closed, said foreign ministry spokesman Vincent Floreani.

France had on Monday advised its nationals -- of whom less than 100 remained in Libya -- to leave the country immediately and contact the embassy for evacuation.

Several other European countries including Britain, Germany and the Netherlands have also advised nationals to leave Libya.

France opted to stage a maritime evacuation due to fighting for control of Tripoli's airport.

The United States evacuated staff from its Libyan embassy -- which lies on the road to the airport -- by road but under air cover on Saturday.

Fighting around the airport and between rival militias over the past two weeks has killed scores of people and prompted several countries to urge their citizens to leave Libya.

Many people holding both French and Libyan passports have chosen to stay on, officials said.

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