OIL workers stranded in the Libyan desert by the violent chaos engulfing the north African country were evacuated last night in a daring rescue operation by the RAF and British special forces.
Defence Secretary Liam Fox confirmed that two RAF Hercules had airlifted about 150 Britons and other foreign nationals to safety in Malta.
Fears had been growing for British citizens left in remote parts of the country as protests against Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi's embattled regime escalated and armed militias supportive of the government opened fire on demonstrators.
Up to 70 military personnel, believed to be SBS and SAS, are understood to have landed in the country yesterday. They split into two groups to travel to camps at Amal, Waha and Nafoora, south of Benghazi. It is understood that the rescuers flew from one camp to another picking up civilian workers.
Also yesterday a French military flight flew in to the oil fields area and rescued 122 civilians.
The aircraft were understood to have flown in at extremely low altitudes to avoid attracting the attention of Libya's sophisticated air defences.
One of the workers rescued by the British, Glyn Jones, last night described the dramatic evacuation: "We didn't know anything about this flight when it was coming in.
"The Hercules circled the camp and landed on the runway – we have quite a large runway there. All the guys all made phone calls to one another from different locations, trying to get as many people as possible together.
"At the airport, there were soldiers there. They took names and it was very relaxed and we just, basically, got on the flight. It was a very surreal experience. The last thing we expected to see was a Hercules landing on our runway."
Asked about the mood on board the flight, Jones said: "It was a pretty awesome experience; jubilation I guess. We had the easiest route out of Libya, without a doubt. We haven't experienced any problems in Libya.
"And our flight went straight out of Libya into Malta, so we didn't have to do the Tripoli run – that was something we were a little bit concerned about, if we had to do the run (to the airport] through Tripoli."
Scots worker Paul Powell said: "We were at the Amal camp. Our spirits were a bit low because nothing was happening. There was a flight taking off from the strip – there were flights taking off all the time, but we weren't getting on them. We ended up heading across the desert to a different location.
"We got there and we got on board. It was unbelievable. We knew it was going to be difficult to get us out. The British weren't going to get permission in any form to land, so we knew we were in trouble.
"We thought at the beginning of it, when it all kicked off, it would maybe die down, but things were escalating and getting worse and we started thinking 'what's the plan?'
"People we're thinking of getting different ways out, going by road. We were hearing things, saying there are ferries here, planes here, but nothing concrete. The chefs had left camp. Everybody had left camp."
Another worker, Andrew Pryce, said: "I was waiting for the Italian transport when the Hercules came over. They said: 'If you've got a British passport, get on the plane'.
"Since Monday we've been going around different airstrips. We were at an airstrip at a place called A100, but the strip was blocked by the locals, so they couldn't get the flight in. Our second flight was stopped by Libyan air traffic control … this is the fifth flight we went for. We've been going around from strip to strip trying to find a flight.
"The army guys were asking us if we knew of any other British personnel and we gave them a couple of names – guys who we had a rough idea of where they were and they were definitely going back to get them."
Pryce said the mood on board the Hercules was "noisy and happy".
He said: "When we landed, we gave a round of applause to the guys who got us out. Many thanks to them."
On arrival in Malta, the rescued workers were met by consular officials and Red Cross staff. They are expected to return to Britain tomorrow on board a government- chartered plane.
Last night US president Barack Obama called on Gaddafi to step down.
• Armed patrols terrorise Tripoli residents
• Scots speak of relief at reaching safety
• Analysis: Despite its iron grip, Gaddafi's regime was always likely to fall
Yesterday's evacuation came as Britain worked with international partners on the co-ordinated rescue mission amid fast-deteriorating security conditions.
The last government- chartered flight on which Britons could escape has left Tripoli. Others escaped the country on board HMS Cumberland, which transported 207 people from more than 20 nations to Malta yesterday.
They described an increasingly dangerous situation in Libya, with armed militia roaming the streets and looters running rife. Many had personal items, including money and mobile phones, stolen.
Among the passengers were 70 Britons who faced a 30-hour journey in rough seas from the port of Benghazi. Allan Lamont, 58, from Inverness, worked on a project to allow access to clean water. He said the mounting chaos had forced him to leave. He said: "In the past few weeks we have seen a real rise in violence. We've had to fight off looters and, in general, expect the worst.
"Where we were it was difficult to tell how crowds were being fired upon, but when you hear so many accounts of aggression by the old government it creates a pretty terrifying picture in your mind. We decided to leave Libya because the threat was too real to be ignored."
The father of two, who expects to fly to Gatwick from Malta soon, said he feared the chaos would hamper the work done on the water project over the past year. He added: "I had been in Libya a year and it will be good to get home to somewhere more stable."
Paul Ellis, 51, from Milton Keynes, and his colleagues working on the Great Man-Made River Project in Libya said they were confronted by armed gangs. But he said a woman proved to be their "guardian angel" because thugs refused to enter the building in which they had sought refuge while she was there.
Ellis said people's spirits on HMS Cumberland were good, with all on board relieved to be sailing out of the country. He said: "We spent several days trying to get out of Benghazi and after several days they got us on the Cumberland. It wasn't the smoothest journey, but it was very welcome. The spirits were good. The navy and everyone were great."
Asked whether he was frightened at any point, he said: "Just a bit. The camp that we lived in was ransacked. Anything of any value – mobile phones, laptops – were taken. One of the guys had all his clothes taken. I was quite lucky that they didn't take mine."
Speaking about his saviour, he said: "We all went to one of the buildings on the camp and we all stayed there. There was a lady there and she answered the door every time they tried to break it down.
"They just went away every time. Probably for religious reasons, they wouldn't enter when she was there. She was our guardian angel."
Richard Weeks, 64, a contracts manager from Sully, near Cardiff, was also working on a clean water project when the situation worsened.
The father-of-two said: "We were faced with looters rushing into the property where we were holed up, and there was nothing we could do. It had been getting more risky for the ten days before and there was no prospect of it easing. They were armed with knives and knew they could take what they wanted, so it was better to let them get on with it. It was a very sad and terrifying situation."
Sue Rodgers, 54, who taught primary pupils at the British School in Benghazi, said: "It was very surreal because we could hear gunfire, but could still pop to the shops to get items. It was in the last few days that the situation really worsened and we knew we had to go."
There was praise also for the Royal Navy, which oversaw the operation. Philip Douglas from Craigo near Montrose said: "I can't fault their performance."
Mike Wilson, 61, a former sailor from Portsmouth, travelled from Brega in the south of the country to board the warship in Benghazi.
He said: "I can't speak highly enough of how we were treated and cared for in getting out of Libya.
"We were in a compound of buildings back in the desert and we had looters trying to get in, armed with knives. It was a potentially terrifying situation and it's sad for Libya, where I've been for three years. But we were getting reports about looting and militias and it was best to get out of there."
The HMS Cumberland is due to return to pick up the last Britons in Benghazi today.
Cumberland's commanding officer, Captain Steve Dainton, said: "Ten days ago the ship was off the coast of Somalia, which shows how flexible we can be."