Hundreds of Tunisians stranded for weeks in war-torn Libya due to the coronavirus have returned home after forcing their way through a border crossing, the UN and aid groups said on Tuesday.
Tunisia’s interior ministry, however, denied the Tunisians who crossed the Ras Jedir border point on Monday had had to use force, saying authorities at the frontier allowed 652 to enter from Libya.
But the chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration in Libya, Federico Soda, said in a tweet: “Hundreds of Tunisian migrant workers who have been stranded on the Tunisia/Libya border for weeks have now forced their way into Tunisia.”
“Hundreds more are still waiting to return home in the absence of concrete action,” Soda said.
Soda posted on his Twitter account a video showing droves of Tunisians carrying personal belongings walking along a motorway towards the border, some wheeling carry-on luggage and chanting.
Tunisia closed its border with Libya in March as part of measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country is also under a night-time curfew.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh said the lockdown would be extended to May 3 before it is progressively eased.
According to human rights activist Mostapha Abdelkebir, around 1,300 Tunisians had massed close to the Ras Jedir border post since the lockdown was imposed in March demanding to be allowed back home.
“Yesterday (Monday), 700 showed up, rather restless and making noise in a bid to force the police to let them through,” Abdelkebir said.
Local Red Crescent official Abdelkarim Regai said Libyan authorities allowed the Tunisian nationals — some of who had been stranded for weeks — to cross from their side of the border.
“They are mostly workers, day labourers, who are facing a dire humanitarian situation,” Regai said.
A Tunisian diplomatic source estimated that around 20,000 of his country’s nationals remain in Libya.
The source expected authorities on both sides to allow more crossings ahead of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which is expected to begin on Thursday.
On Tuesday morning, buses escorted by police left the border area with the Tunisians on board to ferry them back to their region of origin, an AFP correspondent said.
The interior ministry said they would be sent to quarantine centres before being allowed home.
Libyans also blocked
Also on Tuesday, Tunisian border guards prevented around 100 Libyan truck drivers from crossing the frontier, the correspondent said.
One driver who did not give his name said they had been stranded for more than a month trying to get back home.
A spokesman for the Tunisian defence ministry, Mohemd Zekri, said the Libyans had closed their side of the border.
Since confirming its first case of the respiratory disease in early March, Tunisia has declared 38 deaths among 884 confirmed cases of infection.
Thousands of Tunisians have been stranded abroad due to the pandemic and their return home was to be discussed during a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.