Egyptians, Tunisians try to help Libyan neighbors

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CAIRO (AP) — Having successfully toppled their own autocratic rulers, Egyptian and Tunisians are rushing to the aid of their Libyan neighbors with hastily organized blood drives, field hospitals and convoys of food and medicine.

Volunteers say they couldn’t remain indifferent to the suffering next door after having just fought their own battles for freedom.

“It made us feel that we can do something,” said Momen El-Husseiny, an architecture student.

In Libya, hundreds are believed to have been killed in the 10-day uprising against dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Large areas of Libya have fallen to rebels opposing his 42-year rule, but Gadhafi remains in control in and around the capital Tripoli and has vowed to fight to the death.

While Libya was initially sealed off from the world, its border with Egypt has become porous in recent days and more details of Gadhafi’s brutal crackdown have emerged, such as mercenaries firing on unarmed protesters.

Hospitals in eastern Libya, now under rebel control, have sent appeals for supplies. While ad hoc volunteers and charities try to meet those needs, physicians from Egypt and elsewhere are headed to the region.

The Cairo-based Union of Arab Doctors said it has already managed to send 12 tons of drugs and medical supplies, 30 tons of food and 1,000 blood portions into Libya. Fifty-five Egyptian doctors have reached towns in eastern Libya, including Benghazi, Tobruk and Beyida, said Dr. Ibrahim Zafran, a coordinator for the group.

The Egyptian and Tunisian armies have set up field hospitals on both sides of the border.

And more help is on the way. Libyan exiles and worldwide Muslim charities have also launched aid drives, with one group reporting it raised tens of thousands of dollars in just two days.

A Turkish ferry loaded with food and medicine was heading toward Libya on Thursday before mooring at Crete due to high seas. Turkey was expected to send more aid ships in coming days, and the United Arab Emirates also promised to help.

Young veterans of the Egyptian uprising that pushed out President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11 set up a Facebook page to coordinate aid efforts. Within a few days, they had thousands of members and donations rolled in, they said.

The activists said they felt special kinship with the Libyans and were emboldened to take quick action because of their own success. “We have energy, we’re fast, and the government bureaucrats are just trying to follow up,” El-Husseiny said.

On Wednesday, activists staffed an impromptu collection point outside a mosque in Cairo’s Mohandeseen neighborhood.

Donated flour, rice, sugar, and medicines were stacked along a sidewalk. Passers-by gave blood in mobile units parked nearby, and volunteers handed out flyers showing pictures of bloodied corpses in Libya to passing motorists to spur them to make donations.

Since earlier this week, the goods have been loaded onto trucks every night and driven to the Libyan border, a 17-hour journey from Cairo.

Dr. Ahmed Sharif, an Egyptian physician who grew up in London, said he was preparing to travel with the next convoy to the border town of Salloum. Sharif, 34, said he is taking sutures, antiseptics, IV fluids, bandages and other emergency medical supplies that Libyan medical officials have requested.

Zafran, the coordinator for the Union of Arab Doctors, said shipments are loaded from Egyptian to Libyan vehicles at the border. “There is no danger is in the eastern zone” of Libya he said, but doctors don’t dare venture west of Benghazi, into areas still under Gadhafi’s control.

Ramzi Eltajoury, a Libyan expatriate in London, said he established a medical charity after returning from a trip to Benghazi several days ago. He said his group manage to raise tens of thousands of dollars in just two days. “The situation is dire in the hospitals,” he said.

While aid is reaching Libya from Egypt, the border between Egypt and Tunisia remains largely impenetrable, doctors involved in the aid effort said. As of Wednesday, about 2,500 Tunisians, 300 Egyptians and a few Libyans fleeing the chaos in Libya had managed to cross into Tunisia, but people injured in fighting were not among them, the doctors said.

“They (the injured) are prevented from exiting the country, and stopped long before they reach the border,” Dr. Mourad al-Ayashi, a Tunis-based doctor, said Thursday. “It’s really frustrating for all the volunteers because they’re ready, with tons of supplies and blood and everything, but they can’t put any of it into practice, though we know there’s an enormous need inside Libya.”

The Tunisian army has set up a field hospital with a capacity of 5,000 beds and 20 surgeons near the Libyan border, doctors said.

The physicians hope that a “humanitarian corridor” will eventually be established to get the wounded into Tunisia, the nation that triggered the wave of uprisings in the Arab world when it kicked out its longtime ruler in mid-January.

“After what we’ve seen on TV, it’s impossible to remain indifferent to the fate of our neighbors,” al-Ayashi said earlier this week. “We went through a similar situation just recently, and we suffered, but in Libya, the suffering is immense.”


Associated Press writers Jenny Barchfield in Paris and Ben Hubbard in Cairo contributed to this report.