CAIRO (AP) — Cairo's international airport was a scene of chaos and confusion Monday as thousands of foreigners sought to flee the unrest in Egypt and countries around the world scrambled to send in planes to fly their citizens out.
Nerves frayed and shouting and shoving matches erupted as thousands crammed into Cairo airport's new Terminal 3 seeking a flight home. The airport's departures board stopped announcing flight times in an attempt to reduce the tension — but the plan backfired, fueling passengers' anger.
Making matters worse, check-in counters were poorly staffed because many EgyptAir employees had been unable to get to work due to a 3 p.m.-to-8 a.m. curfew and traffic breakdowns across the Egyptian capital.
"It's an absolute zoo, what a mess," said Justine Khanzadian, 23, a graduate student from the American University of Cairo. "I decided to leave because of the protests, the government here is just not stable enough to stay."
Food was scarce at the airport, with people buying up chocolate in the duty free shop. Airport staff shouted at travelers to get in line, but many were in no mood to listen. The scheduling board listed flight numbers without destinations or times of departure.
Occasionally, an official emerged and shouted out the destination of a departing flight, triggering a rush of passengers with boarding passes. The process worked smoothly for nationals of countries that had sent planes — Denmark, Germany, China, Canada — others had no such support.
By curfew time, some people who had apparently failed to get on a flight out of Egypt had boarded buses for the ride back into Cairo.
The State Department said more than 2,400 Americans had contacted U.S. officials seeking government-chartered evacuation flights from Egypt, and more than 220 had already left.
One U.S. military plane landed Monday at Larnaca Airport in Cyprus on ferrying 42 people — mostly U.S. citizens working at embassies in Cairo. Another plane was expected later in Larnaca carrying about 180 people.
EgyptAir resumed its flights Monday morning from Cairo after a roughly 14-hour break because of the curfew and its inability to field enough crew. Over 20 hours, only 26 of about 126 EgyptAir flights operated, airport officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Greek oil worker Markos Loukogiannakis, who arrived in Athens on a flight carrying 181 passengers including 65 U.S. citizens, said confusion reigned at Cairo airport and travelers had to negotiate a string of checkpoints just to get there.
"In a 22-kilometer (14-mile) route from our suburb to the airport we had to get through 19 checkpoints, including nine manned by civilians," he said. "There were lots of people gathering at the airport and it was very difficult to get in."
He said security had deteriorated sharply over the past three days in Cairo after police withdrew from the streets.
"There was a wave of attacks by criminal elements who engaged in burglaries and wrecked shops and banks. There was a lot of shooting and residents took up the burden of protecting their property," he said.
Jane Travis, an American tourist from Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, who was evacuated to Athens, said she and her husband heard shooting from their hotel.
"We are very concerned that there was no warning from our State Department before we came on this trip," she said. "From our hotel, which was well guarded, we heard the gunshots and it was very terrifying."
In a geopolitical shift, even Iraq decided it would evacuate its citizens, sending three planes to Egypt — including the prime minister's plane — to bring home for free those who wish to return. Thousands of Iraqis had once fled to Egypt to escape the violence in their own country.
About 800 Iraqis had left Cairo by Monday afternoon, said Capt. Mohammed al-Moussawi, a crew member for the prime minister's office. He said the flights would continue until all those who wished to return had done so.
Nearly 320 Indian nationals arrived in Mumbai on a special Air India flight and another 275 were expected later. An Azerbaijan flight carrying 103 people and the body of an Azeri Embassy accountant killed in the unrest arrived in Baku, and Turkey sent five planes to Cairo and Alexandria, evacuating 1,548 Turkish nationals.
Indonesia was sending a plane to Cairo to start evacuating some 6,150 Indonesians — mostly students and workers — and SAS Denmark was flying home some 60 Danes.
China sent four planes to help pick up an estimated 500 Chinese stranded in Cairo and warned citizens not travel to Egypt.
That echoed earlier warnings from Britain, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and the Czech Republic, which all advised against all nonessential travel to Egypt. Many European tour companies canceled trips to Egypt until Feb. 23, while others left the cancellations open until further notice.
One big question was what to do with the tens of thousands of tourists in other parts of Egypt. Tour operators say they will fly home all their customers this week when their holidays end, or on extra flights, stressing there has not been any unrest in Red Sea resort cities like Hurghada or Sharm el-Sheik. Still, food shortages were starting to be felt at some Egyptian resorts and some restaurants were refusing to serve foreigners.
All major German tour operators — among them TUI AG and Thomas Cook's German subsidiary — canceled day trips to Cairo and Luxor.
Germany, which sends about 1.2 million tourists to Egypt each year, was not officially evacuating its citizens. But Deutsche Lufthansa AG on Monday was operating an additional flight at the request of the foreign ministry to bring more German tourists home. Foreign ministry spokesman Dirk Augustin said thousands more Germans currently live in Egypt, with up to 7,000 around Cairo.
Britain estimated there were 30,000 U.K. tourists and long-term residents in Egypt but said it had no plans to evacuate them. Foreign Secretary William Hague warned people against all but essential travel to Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Suez.
German tour operator Rewe Touristik advised clients booked on a holiday in Egypt through Feb. 7 to cancel their trip and allowed them to switch to another destination without surcharge. The company has 3,100 clients in the country.
Many companies organized their own evacuations for their workers. German utility company RWE said its oil and gas subsidiary RWE Dea repatriated some 90 people — employees and their families — with a chartered plane that arrived in Hamburg on Monday.
The Danish company shipping company A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S chartered a plane to pick up relatives of its Danish employees in Egypt. The company said there were no terminal operations in Egypt on Monday and the Maersk Line, Safmarine and Damco offices were closed.
Air France canceled its daily flight from Paris to Cairo on Monday and planned to increase its capacity Tuesday by an extra 200 seats.
Portugal sent a C-130 military transport plane to evacuate its citizens. Greece was sending three C-130 military transport planes to Alexandria on Tuesday and Polish airline LOT was flying to Cairo.