ANKARA, Turkey -- Foreigners fled the chaos in Libya by the thousands Wednesday, with Americans and Turks climbing aboard ships, Europeans boarding evacuation flights and North Africans racing to border crossings in overcrowded vans.
Two Turkish ships whisked 3,000 citizens away from the unrest engulfing Libya as Turkey cranked up its largest-ever evacuation, seeking to protect its estimated 25,000 workers in Libya. More than 200 Turkish companies are involved in construction projects in Libya worth over $15 billion, and some construction sites have come under attack by protesters.
The safety of U.S. citizens was a prime concern after failed attempts earlier this week to get them out by plane. But hundreds of Americans safely boarded a 600-passenger ferry at Tripoli's As-shahab port on Wednesday afternoon for the five-hour journey to Malta, a Mediterranean island south of Italy.
Over a dozen countries -- including Russia, China, Germany and Ukraine -- sent planes in to help their citizens escape an increasingly unstable situation. Tripoli airport was overflowing with stranded passengers, and one said thousands more were sitting in the sun outside the airport, surrounded by luggage and children and blocked by security from entering.
"The airport was mobbed, you wouldn't believe the number of people," said Kathleen Burnett, of Baltimore, Ohio, as she stepped off a flight from Tripoli to Vienna. "It was total chaos."
Irina Kuneva of Bulgaria said tensions in Tripoli were rising sharply after strongman Moammar Gadhafi's defiant speech hinting at civil war with protesters in eastern Libya.
"He said people should either do what he tells them or there will be a civil war," she told reporters Wednesday as she arrived in Sofia on an evacuation flight. "People are very scared because there are many released prisoners walking drunk on the streets."
Two Turkish ships left the eastern Libyan port of Benghazi on Wednesday escorted by a navy frigate. They were heading to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Marmaris, where a soup kitchen and a field hospital were set up and buses were brought in to transfer evacuees. Turkey also sent two more ships to Libya and flew 250 more Turkish citizens back home.
Turkey has now evacuated over 5,300 citizens from Libya in the last three days.
"We are carrying out the largest evacuation operation in our history," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, adding that 21 countries other countries have asked Turkey to evacuate their citizens too.
Migrants also poured across Libya's land borders with Egypt and Tunisia on Wednesday, with vans piled high with luggage and furniture lining up at the Salloum border crossing with Egypt. Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the U.N. migration agency, said thousands of migrants were fleeing Libya.
China was also gearing up for a massive evacuation of the 30,000 or more Chinese workers in Libya building railways, infrastructure and providing oilfield services. Greece was tapped to help evacuate around 13,000 Chinese workers to Crete by ship and China's first chartered evacuation flight left Wednesday for Libya.
Libyan leader Gadhafi has urged his supporters to strike back against Libyan pro-democracy protesters, escalating a crackdown that has led to widespread shooting in the streets. Nearly 300 people have been killed in the nationwide wave of anti-government protests -- and possibly many more.
Libya is one of the world's biggest oil producers -- responsible for nearly 2 percent of the world's oil -- and many oil companies were evacuating their expatriate workers and families.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said about 170 British oil workers and colleagues from other nations were stranded in desert camps and unable to reach the evacuation flights.
"These camps are remote, they're isolated, they are scattered over a large distance, they're dependent for food or water on supplies from Libyan cities that have been severely disrupted by the violence and unrest," he said. "They are in a perilous and frightening situation."
Britain was sending two Boeing 757s to Tripoli to evacuate U.K. nationals, and will send a third Thursday if necessary. The royal navy frigate HMS Cumberland was arriving in international waters off Libya on Wednesday night, ready to assist evacuations if the violence escalates, Hague said.
Evacuation planes from Libya spread out across Europe.
The first planeload of evacuated Russians landed in Moscow, bringing 118 people, and three more planes were expected. A ship was also setting sail for Ras Lanuf, the site of Libya's largest refinery and port, to evacuate up to 1,000 Russians, Turks, Serbs and Montenegrins there.
Two French military planes evacuated nearly 400 foreigners to Paris from Libya, and a third plane was en route from France. Two Bulgarian planes returned Wednesday from Tripoli with nearly 200 passengers and Dutch citizens flew home on a military plane.
Hundreds of Italians took Alitalia flights from Tripoli home, and an Italian air force plane landed Wednesday to evacuate others. Two Italian naval vessels headed to eastern Libyan ports to rescue citizens from Benghazi, Misurata, and other cities where airports had been damaged.
Arriving at Madrid's Barajas airport on a nearly empty Libyan Airlines plane, Venezuelan oil engineer Cesar Orta said he had never witnessed violence but had heard it.
"You could hear gunshots or fireworks and hear people shouting. I wasn't afraid, but I never left my house at night," he said, adding that Tripoli was generally pro-Gadhafi.
Orta said the worst inconvenience was the intermittent Internet service and no working telephones, as well as not being able to understand Arabic-language television to know what was going on.
Carlos Dominguez, another passenger, said conditions were chaotic at Tripoli's airport, where people could not buy tickets online and Libyan Airlines was accepting only cash.
"The doors are locked and you can only get in if you have a ticket," he said.
Swarms of Egyptians who had lived in Libya were locked outside the airport, he said, "lying on the sidewalks with blankets and children" and all their belongings, even television sets.
"The army treats them very badly," he added.
Orta said the Libyans he had talked to think the unrest will die down in a week or so.
"They say things will be OK and that Gadhafi will sort things out," Orta said.
Dominguez, who worked as an architectural consultant in Tripoli, said the Libyans he knows were furious with the international community for its hands-off approach.
"People are very angry with the international attitude," he said.