Palestinians on ferry more stateless than usual


NICOSIA, Cyprus -- The children on the Countess M hung on the rails of the ferry ship this week watching bright parasails lift from resort beaches, part of a world that did not want them.

They are among the latest outcasts in a history of Palestinian statelessness, set adrift this time by an unpredictable, self-proclaimed Arab nationalist. The Palestinians aboard the ship were evicted from Libya by Col. Muammar el Kadafi. They were shoved back on the boat in Syria and refused permission to dock in Cyprus, an island off the Mediterranean coast of Syria.

The Countess M rode at anchor off the tourist beaches of Larnaca until a flurry of diplomatic calls and embarrassing media stories prompted Syria to agree to retrieve most -- though not all -- of the passengers.

"Maybe my baby can have a Cyprus passport," mused Mahmoud Abu Hassan, 35, whose pregnant wife was plucked by helicopter from the Countess M decks and taken to a Larnaca hospital to give birth to a daughter. "It is better. A Palestinian can go nowhere."

But the plight of the Palestinians aboard the Countess M may be only the start of the story. Colonel Kadafi, the mercurial Libyan leader, now has threatened to expel 1 million African workers from his country.

It would be an exodus that would cause headaches throughout the region. United Nations officials have warned of catastrophe, and a Security Council committee on Tuesday refused to lift the UN embargo against flights into and out of Libya so the workers could be flown home.

Colonel Kadafi's very unpredictability makes much of the world treat this desert chieftain warily. In August, he promised to evict 30,000 Palestinians from his country and sent about 900 toward the Egyptian border. Then he flew by helicopter to their camp, promised to build them a city, and left.

Just as Palestinian officials thought they had persuaded him to stop the evictions, he packed another 643 aboard the Countess M and shipped them off. Similarly, he has sent 7,000 Egyptian workers back to their country and sent a huge convoy of trucks with 13,000 Sudanese across the grueling desert toward their home.

"He's using all these foreigners as a bargaining chip to get what he wants from the outside world," complained a Palestinian diplomat in Nicosia, Fayez Younes. "He's using children and humans for his own ends."

Libya has been under U.N. sanctions since 1992 for refusing to permit the trial of two men accused of involvement in the 1988 mid-air bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people.

The economic strangling of that embargo is prompting the latest moves, according to some analysts. Unable to sell oil, Colonel Kadafi cannot pay the foreign workers in his country.

Libya told the U.N. Security Council it wants to repatriate 500,000 Sudanese, 300,000 from Chad, 250,000 from Mali and others from Niger, Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau.

Diplomats grumbled that the expulsion demand was an attempt to use the workers to get the United Nations to ease its embargo.

Libya itself said the workers are "illegal infiltrators," and typically offered an offbeat explanation: They are being expelled to protect Libya from AIDS and the Ebola virus, went one government line.

There are other explanations for the move. Fueled by the economic woes, opponents to Colonel Kadafi's regime reportedly rioted last month in the port of Benghazi. The bloody protests were said to be backed by Islamic fundamentalists, who find Colonel Kadafi's quirky mix of Islam and nationalism an insult to Islam.

The expulsions are thought to be the Libyan leader's attempt to get rid of fundamentalist leaders among the Egyptian and Sudanese workers.

The Palestinians, as ever, are a special case. Colonel Kadafi said he is sending them back to demonstrate that the peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians is a sham that gives no real homeland to Palestinians.

Indeed, his point is made. Officials of the new Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza cannot take in the refugees without Israeli approval. So far, only a trickle of those sent to the Egyptian-Libyan border have been permitted to pass onward into the Gaza Strip.

"They are trying to embarrass us," complained Mr. Younes, the Palestinian diplomat in Cyprus. "They know very well the refugee problem is not yet solved."

There are an estimated 3 million to 4 million Palestinians scattered across the world, most of them refugees, or their offspring, from the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. These "diaspora" Palestinians exceed the 2.2 million now living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In the Israel-Palestinian agreement, the issue of their repatriation rights to Palestinian autonomous areas will be negotiated starting next May. But Israel is unlikely to agree to a huge influx.

The Palestinians abroad remain vulnerable to the whims of politics, even though many have obtained other passports or some sort of travel documents.

Indeed, 590 of the 643 aboard the Countess M have legitimate papers for entry into Syria, according to Mr. Younes.

But other Arab countries are loath to accept Palestinian refugees and the troubles they bring.

Egypt is refusing to accept the refugees from Libya.

Lebanon recently blocked shipping from Libya to avoid getting refugees. Nicolas Fattoush, the tourism minister, said Lebanon would not be used as a "dump" for the "human waste."

The captain of the Countess M, George Kolidas, said his Palestinian passengers did not appear to board willingly when ,, the vessel left Libya on Oct. 15.

"Mothers were forced to get onto the boat with their babies," he said. Those Palestinians who spoke to reporters were more guarded in their description. Mr. Hassan, whose wife gave birth, said, "I wanted to leave. Work was bad in Libya."

Arab newspapers have reported in recent weeks that Libyan authorities are entering houses and demanding that Palestinians leave.

Libyan Unity Affairs Minister Jom'a al-Fezzani, in an interview with the Egyptian daily al-Hayat, denied that previous Palestinian departures have been forced.

"What I want to make clear is that Libya did not deport the Palestinians and that they left voluntarily," he said.

The Countess M had docked in Syria at Latakia when authorities suddenly ordered everyone back aboard and sent the ship off, according to Captain Kolidas. Syria has not explained its refusal to take the passengers.

The ship, Greek-owned but registered in Cyprus, then sailed to Larnaca for supplies. Cyprus officials wanted nothing to do with the passengers.

"They will not be allowed to get off here," said a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.

Yesterday, Cyprus officials said Syria was sending a smaller boat to Larnaca today to begin transferring Palestinians with Syrian documents. It was unclear what would happen to the others aboard the Countess M.

"The problem is not going to be just this 600," said the Larnaca port captain, George Mikellides. "What about the rest? No country will take them."

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