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CAIRO, Egypt--More than 300 Egyptians were flown home from Tunisia early Sunday morning on four U.S. military planes serving as part of an international effort to repatriate tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the escalating bloodshed in Libya.

Violence between rebel forces and those loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has spurred an exodus out of the North African nation. About 100,000 people, a majority of them foreign workers, have fled to Tunisia. From there, several countries -- including Italy, Spain, England, and the U.S.— are helping to repatriate them by air.

Others are fleeing by ship. Dozens of migrant workers evacuated by ship from Libya to the Greek island of Crete apparently jumped overboard during the night Sunday, Greek authorities told The Associated Press, leaving three dead, 30 hospitalized and a further 16 missing.

The first U.S. Air Force C-130 transport plane landed about 8 p.m. Saturday at Djerba-Zarzis International Airport in Tunisia. Nearly 90 men filed into the behemoth cabin, packing the two rows of red canvas seats. One man proudly displayed the Egyptian flag as he boarded.

Adam Lefringhouse, a foreign affairs officer at the American embassy in Tunisia, joked with the men in Arabic prior to take off.

He said the Egyptians had spoken of having to cross dozens of checkpoints where Gadhafi’s security forces had harassed them, stealing their money and smashing their cell phones.

“They were accused of being part of an Egyptian mafia,” Lefringhouse said. “They were really afraid of being picked up.”

Airmen from the 37th Airlift Squadron strapped the men into their seats, sharing the occasional thumbs up. “They seem pretty happy to get where they are going,” Staff Sgt. Ross Hagen said of the passengers. “It feels pretty good to be able to help them.”

Shortly after take off, dozens of the Egyptians slumped forward, falling asleep on makeshift luggage, most of which consisted of thick blankets wrapped in duct tape. The three-hour plane trip home offered them a chance to get some much needed rest after their long ordeal. But an hour before landing, several men broke out into rhythmic clapping and song.

“I am happy to be going back to Egypt,” said one man, who asked to not be identified out of fear of reprisals. “I will not be going back to Libya.”

As the plane touched down at Cairo International Airport, a round of applause rang out and a few hugs were shared. The men streamed off the plane and into a waiting bus. Then the U.S. airmen quickly readied the plane for its next evacuation flight out of Tunisia.

“The Tunisians are doing a good job of accepting a lot of aircrafts for both humanitarian aid as well as flying out the foreign nationals,” said Lt. Col. Charles “Doc” Schlegel, commander of Ramstein’s 435th Air Mobility Squadron. More than 40,000 Egyptians were returned this weekend, and a few thousand remain, along with as many as 10,000 Bangladeshis awaiting transport. Other nations with large foreign-worker populations in Libya, such as India, had organized successful evacuations earlier.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. James Stockman, public affairs officer for U.S. Africa Command, which is in charge of all U.S. military missions on the continent, said the U.S. would keep up its evacuation efforts indefinitely. “We greatly look forward to continuing this mission until it’s deemed we are no longer necessary,” he said.

robbinss@estripes.osd.mil

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