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Hundreds of American Evacuees Still Stuck on Ferry in Libyan Port

Feb 24, 2011 – 1:48 PM
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Dana Kennedy

Dana Kennedy Contributor

Bad weather for a second straight day kept a ferry with several hundred Americans from being evacuated from Libya, though hopes are high that the captain will be able set sail for Malta on Friday.

The Americans' presence on the vessel tied up in Tripoli's As-shahab port while Libya descends into bloody chaos is thought to be why President Barack Obama has tempered his remarks on the crisis so far.

The Maria Dolores, a 204-foot tourist-type catamaran, can carry 600 passengers and was chartered by the U.S. to evacuate its citizens. It's reportedly close to capacity, although officials do not want to give exact numbers for security reasons.

"It's enough of a target to begin with," a source familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified told AOL News today, although all reports said the ferry and the people aboard were safe.

The passengers, at least half of whom are American and the rest believed to be British, Canadian and people holding dual passports, were supposed to leave the increasingly dangerous country Wednesday.

Instead, rough seas with 16-foot waves have prevented U.S. officials from getting their citizens and the other passengers out.

U.S. government requests to land aircraft to pick up the citizens have been denied, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley told reporters in Washington.

Today, the passengers ate a lunch catered and brought in by a nearby restaurant and were able to partake of an open bar on the ultra-modern vessel, which is equipped with flat-screen TVs, plush lounge chairs and four-person tables to play cards, a spokesman for the ferry service said.

"I just spoke to the cabin crew a few minutes ago, and they told me the passengers are calm and just waiting until the ferry can leave," said Henri Saliba, the director of Virtu Ferries, the Malta-based ferry company chartered by the U.S.

Saliba said that U.S. Embassy officials from Malta came over on the ferry and are with the passengers on a 24-hour basis, as are the ship's captain and crew.

"I was told that the area around the Tripoli harbor is calm, so there is no need for any immediate worry," Saliba said.

Elijah Waterman, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Malta, said the passengers on the ferry are considered to be in a secure area and said the vessel is well-stocked with food and drink. "There's no sense of a threat to the passengers right now," Waterman said. "We are hoping the weather will improve by tomorrow morning and they can take off."

Malta is the nearest European port to Tripoli and has become ground zero for efforts to get non-Libyans out of the country. It's a six-hour voyage from Tripoli to Malta.

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"They are on a very modern ferry," Waterman said. "We're not talking the Staten Island ferry."

Several thousand American citizens, most holding dual U.S.-Libyan passports, were believed to be in Libya when this month's uprising against leader Moammar Gadhafi began.

The ferry passengers were just some of the tens of thousands of foreigners trying to leave Libya as Gadhafi continued to lose his grip on a country spiraling into violent anarchy.

News reports from the region painted a picture of panic and desperation at the international airport in Tripoli, with up to 10,000 people reportedly trying to board planes to flee the country.
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