LONDON — British media were full of praise Sunday for a secret commando raid by British Special Forces that plucked 150 oil workers from the remote Libyan desert, but thousands of other foreigners were still stuck in Tripoli by bad weather and red tape.
The British government had been embarrassed by earlier botched attempts to rescue citizens stranded in Libya's uprising — its first rescue flight broke down and became stuck on a London runway on Wednesday. But on Sunday, newspapers could not gush enough about the "daring and dramatic" military operation by two RAF Hercules planes that brought stranded citizens to Malta.
"SAS swoops in dramatic Libya rescue," the Sunday Telegraph headline read, in reference to the storied Special Air Service.
The mission was risky because Britain sent the planes in without obtaining prior Libyan permission, Foreign Secretary William Hague said. The government is still trying to locate remaining Britons in Libya, and more military-style rescue missions are reportedly planned. The UK frigate HMS Cumberland also returned to the eastern Libyan port of Benghazi from Malta to evacuate more people.
"We are working intensively to establish who is still in Libya and where they are," Hague told the BBC.
One evacuee said his military plane was supposed to carry around 65 people out of Libya, but quickly grew to double that.
"It was very cramped but we were just glad to be out of there," Patrick Eyles, a 43-year-old Briton, said at Malta International Airport.
As thousands finally made it to safety on the Greek island of Crete, two ships trying to ferry foreigners out of Libya were still struggling to leave Tripoli, delayed by officialdom and rough seas. A Russian-chartered ferry arrived at a Libyan port further east to pick up more than 1,000 people.
On Crete, three more ships arrived from the eastern Libyan port of Benghazi early Sunday carrying about 4,200 passengers, mostly Chinese but also 750 Bangladeshis and 200 Vietnamese, authorities said. Air China planned four flights Sunday from Crete, carrying about 1,200 Chinese back to their homeland.
Another ferry from Benghazi with 2,000 more Chinese was expected to reach Crete on Monday night, shipping agents said.
The sheer numbers of foreigners leaving Libya as Moammar Gadhafi's regime battles anti-government protesters has been staggering. At least 20,000 Chinese, 15,000 Turks and 1,400 Italians had been evacuated, most working in the construction and oil industries.
In addition, some 22,000 people have fled across the Libyan border to Tunisia and another 15,000 crossed the border into Egypt, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council.
Italy's San Giorgio military ship arrived in Sicily on Sunday, carrying about 250 people, half of them Italian.
"Having come back to Italy is a miracle to us, we couldn't wait to get back," Francesco Baldassarre, an Italian evacuated with his father Gino, told the ANSA news agency.
One cruise ship carried some 1,750 evacuees — mostly from Vietnam and Thailand — from Libya to Malta early Sunday, and another ship reached the Athens port of Piraeus carrying 390 evacuees, chiefly Brazilians, Portuguese and British.
In Tripoli, Henri Saliba, managing director of Virtu Ferries, said the ferry San Gwann was accepting anyone and was almost at capacity with more than 400 passengers. The Maria Dolores ferry has been chartered by a private company and has some 90 passengers on board.
They started taking passengers on Saturday evening but Libyan police only let people board in a trickle. Then bad weather on Sunday morning prevented their departure. Saliba said the ferries hope to leave Tripoli on Sunday evening and arrive in Valletta, Malta, on Monday.
He said conditions at Tripoli's port were safe and calm.
The Interfax news agency, citing Russia's Emergencies Ministry, said the St. Stephan ferry had docked in the central Libyan port of Ras Lanuf, where it was taking aboard 1,126 evacuees, including 124 Russians.
Two Turkish frigates evacuating more than 1,700 people were expected to arrive in Turkey's Mediterranean port of Marmaris late Sunday. Four other Turkish civilian ships — escorted by the Turkish navy — were also on their way to evacuate more people from three Libyan ports — Tripoli, Misrata and Ras Lanuf.
Turkey had up to 30,000 citizens mostly working in construction projects in Libya before the trouble began. It was not clear how many more needed to be evacuated.
A plane carrying 185 evacuees also landed Sunday at Boryspil Airport in Kiev.
Associated Press writers across Europe contributed to this story.