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Violence and complicated rescue mission

European and Israel tour operators evacuate travelers from Tunisia

Jan 16, 2011

Several tour operators from Europe rushed Saturday to retrieve thousands of tourists on vacation in Tunisia after widespread protests toppled the North African nation's longtime president and brought chaos to some cities.

A group of 20 Israelis was rescued Saturday evening from Tunisia, where a violent uprising has succeeded in overturning the government.

The complicated mission was orchestrated by a number of Israeli authorities, including the Foreign Ministry. The tourists were first transferred to a third country, from where are to continue to Israel by plane.
Tour companies in Britain and Germany started the airlift process, sending planes to Tunisia to bring back tourists anxious to return home. The French national travel agency association, CETO, said French tour operators planned to evacuate tourists shortly and urged people planning trips to Tunisia in the next few days to cancel their plans and change their tickets.

Tunisia in recent years has become a popular sun-and-sand destination for Europeans looking to escape wintry weather, and the uprising there caught tour operators by surprise after a sustained period of stability.

More than 1,000 tourists arrived back in Britain on Saturday after being evacuated from Tunisia, with several hundred more expected to arrive on special flights Sunday.

"It was quite scary but I was never in fear for my life," said Mary Grist, a retiree who arrived at Manchester Airport from Tunisia on Saturday. "What we have seen is the aftermath, burned-out petrol stations and the army lining the streets with their guns."

She said she and others who entered Tunisia on Wednesday should have been told about the spreading unrest and given the option of canceling their trip then.

"I think we should have been warned but they didn't so here we are, two-and-a-half days later, back home," she said.

Others described a frightening atmosphere as gasoline stations were burned, store windows were smashed and armed soldiers patrolled the streets.

German companies are scrambling to repatriate more than 5,000 tourists in Tunisia. Thomas Cook's German subsidiary successfully brought back 200 German tourists from Tunisia Friday, but 1,800 are still in the country, with many scheduled to be flown out Saturday.

Rewe Group said Saturday it is starting to bring back its 2,100 clients currently in Tunisia and tour operator TUI AG also said Saturday it is sending planes to bring 1,000 clients back to Germany.

Britain's Foreign Office said another 150 to 200 Britons are known to be traveling independently in Tunisia and have registered with the embassy there.

European and Israel tour operators evacuate travelers from Tunisia
Reuters photo: Violence despite curfew in Tunisia

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