Ferry company officials say a vessel chartered by the U.S. government has left the Libyan capital Tripoli for Malta, after being blocked in port by rough seas for three days.
Hanri Saliba, managing director of Virtu Ferries, says the ferry set sail early afternoon Friday. It is expected to take some eight hours to cross the Mediterranean Sea between Tripoli and the island nation of Malta.
The State Department is also chartering a flight to evacuate Americans from the strife in Libya. Officials said Americans wishing to board the flight should come to Mitiga Air Field where they will be processed on a first-come, first-serve basis. Long waits are likely and priority will be given to those with medical emergencies.
The rough seas also stranded thousands of Chinese workers hoping to be evacuated Friday from the chaos.
Tens of thousands of foreigners are trying to flee Libya, with Turks and Chinese climbing aboard ships by the thousands. Europeans are mostly boarding evacuation flights while North Africans race to border crossings in overcrowded vans.
European countries scrambled to send more ships and military planes to the North African nation and Britain mulled whether to send in its military to rescue stranded oil workers.
China dispatched a navy ship to support the evacuation of its citizens. The mission underscores the complexities facing China in protecting hundreds of thousands of its citizens in developing countries as the world's No. 2 economy promotes private business or work on dams, roads and other infrastructure projects in the Third World.
An estimated 30,000 Chinese live in Libya, the majority of whom are now seeking to flee the country where fighting between rebels and foreign mercenaries and Libyan militiamen loyal to Muammar Qaddafi has killed hundreds.
The bad weather forced Greece to suspend the evacuation of thousands of Chinese to the island of Crete on Friday. But about 6,000 Chinese nationals were expected at Cretan ports Saturday, according to local officials and tourism organizers. Up to 15,000 Chinese about half the number of Chinese working in Libya on construction and oil projects are expected to arrive by ferry in Crete and fly home on chartered flights.
Americans and other foreigners have been waiting aboard the Maria Dolores catamaran at Tripoli's As-shahab port since Wednesday, waiting to be evacuated to Malta. The U.S. State Department said on Twitter that 167 U.S. citizens and 118 citizens of other countries were on the ferry.
Two Italian military ships are off the Libyan coasts, near Misrata, but rough seas are preventing the evacuation of some 150 Italian workers. Two Turkish ships on their way to Libya were also waiting for calmer seas, one near the island of Crete.
"The situation in Libya is getting worse. We are not talking about chaos anymore, but really about a civil war," Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki said on TVN24. "Most of the country is in the hands of rebels and they lack centralized power. That's why it's so dangerous. Gangs are on the prowl in many places."
Poland appealed to around 400 of its citizens in Libya to leave as quickly as possible, saying the window of opportunity is narrowing. However, just over 100 of them were contemplating leaving. They are mostly Polish women married to Libyans.
"We firmly advise that they return," Bosacki said. "Getting to the airport is getting always harder, so if someone wants to leave they should do so as quickly as possible."
A similar call came from British Prime Minister David Cameron who said his government was doing "everything it can" to get British nationals out."
British naval ship HMS Cumberland, which sailed from Benghazi on Thursday afternoon for Malta, carried 207 evacuees, including 68 Britons. The trip usually takes at least 15 hours but was expected to take hours longer because of rough seas. Cameron said a second warship HMS York was being sent to waters close to Libya to help with rescue missions.
"I would say that people do need to leave now and that is the message that I give very strongly to British citizens in Libya," Cameron said. "For those in the desert, we will do everything we can and we are active on that right now to help get you out."
Britain, meanwhile, denied a claim that it had paid bribes to Libyan officials to help facilitate evacuation flights, with a Foreign Office spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with policy, saying: "paying charges levied by the authorities at a foreign airport is not bribery."
Greece had to overcome serious hurdles to obtain landing clearance to evacuate 230 Greeks from Libya to Athens early Friday.
"It was total chaos on every level, and quite troubling for the people involved. But we got our people out," said Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitris Dollis, who traveled to Libya to coordinate the effort. "It took us three days just to get clearance to land (in Tripoli and two regional airports). It's difficult to get permission when no one is running the country."
Turkey also faced severe problems in obtaining landing permits, but it was able to launch flights between Tripoli and the southern airport of Dalaman. Four Turkish military cargo planes brought more than 400 Turks home from Tripoli, the Foreign Ministry said.
More than 8,000 Turkish citizens have been evacuated by 26 planes and two ships so far, the prime minister's office said. Turkey has 25,000-30,000 citizens, most of whom work in construction projects, in Libya. Around 200 Turkish firms operate in Libya.
"We have asked companies who are not facing an imminent danger not to evacuate their workers from Libya," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told ATV television in an interview Thursday night. "But if they are in danger, then we will arrange transfer for them to airports or ports and take them."
Strong winds affected eight more Turkish military planes ready to take off from an airport close to the Mediterranean, NTV television reported.
Indonesia, Italy and Romania are among other countries that have evacuated or were preparing to pull out its citizens and other foreigners from Libya.