VALLETTA, Malta — An evacuation ferry chartered by the United States two days ago but stranded in Libya because of high seas arrived in Malta on Friday with more than 300 Americans and foreign citizens on board.
The ferry departed from Tripoli just after 6:30 a.m. Eastern time on Friday, early afternoon local time, and reached Valletta a little more than eight hours later.
Philip J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman, said at least 167 Americans were on board the ship. The State Department has said 40 members of the United States Embassy as well as family members were among the passengers.
It was not immediately clear if all the Embassy staff had been evacuated or just nonessential personnel, but the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, announced at a news conference on Friday afternoon that the United States had halted all operations at its embassy in Tripoli.
The stalled evacuation had led the Obama administration to temper its condemnations of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government, with officials worrying that the Libyan government could take American diplomats hostage.
The State Department said roughly 6,000 American citizens, most of them holding dual citizenship, were in Libya when the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi began. Mr. Crowley has said that he believed that those holding dual citizenship would need Libyan government permission to depart.
In addition to the ferry evacuation, Mr. Crowley said in a Twitter posting that a charter flight from Tripoli departed on Friday at 1:49 p.m. Eastern time and would fly to Istanbul; an earlier effort to fly Americans out of Libya had been frustrated on Wednesday when a plane chartered by the United States was denied permission to land.
The State Department Thursday said 285 people were on the ferry, but on Friday it said the number jumped above 300 and that more people had been let on before departure.
Around Libya, frantic operations to evacuate foreigners from the widening chaos continued Friday, and European officials were already looking toward the next challenge: coping with what could be a huge influx of refugees from across the Mediterranean.
More than 10,000 people crowded into Tripoli’s main airport on Thursday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said.
The scramble by foreigners to leave the country began several days ago, but the number of commercial flights could not keep up with demand. Many countries have been mobilizing military and chartered ships and planes.
After landing in Malta on a flight chartered by the British government, Sam Dewhirst from Leeds who had been teaching English in Libya, described the situation in the Tripoli airport as “hellish.”
As a sign of the makeshift nature of operations at the Tripoli airport, Mr. Dewhirst held up what he had been given as a boarding card: An invitation to a reception at the British ambassador’s residence in Tripoli. “That is not an invitation I’ll be taking any time soon,” he said dryly.
While he and other Britons had been able to “jump the queue,” he said, scores of North Africans were still waiting to leave or had abandoned their suitcases on the tarmac in a mad scramble to get on flights. “It was heartbreaking,” he said.
As thousands still struggled to find space on commercial and government aircraft, an evacuation flight chartered by the Canadian government made it into Tripoli on Friday morning only to turn around and leave empty after its crew was unable to find any Canadians at the chaotic airport.
The airplane, which was operated by a Toronto-based company that specializes in flying in conflict zones, was the first Canadian rescue flight to reach Libya after several false starts this week. It was not immediately clear why it returned empty, according to Peter MacKay, the defense minister, who disclosed the development in brief remarks to reporters.
The aviation company, SkyLink, referred all questions about the unsuccessful flight to the government.
Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental group, said at least 30,000 people, mainly Tunisian and Egyptian migrant workers, fled violence in Libya from Monday to Wednesday.
Drawn by jobs in Libya’s booming construction industry and rich oil fields, as many as 1.5 million migrants were working in Libya when the violence began, according to Ms. Pandya’s group.
With such a vast population potentially displaced, officials of European countries likely to be the primary destinations were already looking for help.
As the European Union convened a two-day meeting in Brussels on the crisis, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of Italy said his country “cannot be left” to handle a possible Libyan exodus. But northern European countries, including Britain, urged a far more cautious approach, saying more precise estimates of the number of possible refugees from North Africa were required.
The organization was particularly concerned that large numbers of migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia would be unable to leave Libya for either Tunisia or Egypt.
France, Spain, Greece, Malta and Cyprus have joined Italy in asking for a special European Union solidarity fund to help them bear the brunt of the wave, and for assurances that other countries would join in accommodating refugees.
Human rights organizations urged the European Union not to neglect humanitarian concerns.
Tom Porteous, director of the British office of Human Rights Watch, said the Europeans, in focusing on evacuating their citizens, seemed indifferent to the fate of those foreign workers who could not return home so easily or who feared for their lives.