MANILA - A small group of Philippine workers flew home from strife-torn Libya on Saturday, grateful to have escaped the conflict but anxious about bleak job prospects in their own country.
The 21 Filipinos, red-eyed and weary from lack of sleep and a long journey, arrived at Manila airport using tickets paid for by the Philippine government, which has ordered a mandatory evacuation of its 13,000 nationals from the North African nation.
"It was difficult. There were explosions night and day," oil pipeline welder Michael Antalan, 37, told AFP.
Their Libyan company stopped work on July 20 and allowed them to seek refuge in the embassy in Tripoli, about two hours' drive away.
Rose Biros, 33, a domestic worker in Tripoli, and husband Abraham, the family cook and also 33, sought permission to return home after a bullet slammed into a terrace wall of their employer's home on July 20.
"At first he refused, insisting it was safe to stay. How can it be safe when there were stray bullets flying around? After three days he finally let us go," she told AFP.
The Philippine government imposed a travel ban on Libya on May 30, when it also warned Filipinos there to leave.
Manila then issued a mandatory evacuation order last month following the beheading of a Filipino construction worker in the eastern port of Benghazi.
A Filipina nurse was also abducted and gang-raped in Tripoli on Wednesday.
A ship chartered by Manila is set to sail from Malta in the coming days to pick up Filipinos from Benghazi, Misrata and possibly Tripoli, a foreign department statement said Saturday.
- Urgent appeal -
Despite the dangers, the department said only about 800 have returned to the Philippines.
About 10 million Filipinos work around the world, earning more money than they could in their struggling homeland.
"The (Department of Foreign Affairs) is appealing with urgency to those who have not made the decision to be repatriated to please consider doing so as the avenues of repatriation are quickly diminishing," the statement said.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, in neighbouring Tunisia to coordinate the evacuation, fears the sea route "may be the only means of repatriation", it said.
He said the Tunisia-Libya border crossing was closed on Friday following a shooting incident, while a crossing to Egypt has been closed for months.
Philippine officials have said ships would be able to carry about 1,500 people at a time.
The Filipinos who flew home Saturday all said they had yet to recoup expenses they incurred in securing their Libyan jobs.
"I won't be going back there, it's too dangerous," said Antalan, whose wife works as a maid in Dubai while their five-year-old daughter stays with his parents in Mayantoc, a town north of Manila.
"However I need to find a job in another country. We can't really afford to have only one spouse working," he said, adding he would never find a local employer willing to pay the $1,000 a month he was earning in Libya.
Abraham Biros said he would settle for 20,000 pesos ($460) a month -- what he earned in Libya -- if he could find a job near their home in Naic, a coastal town just south of Manila.
The Philippines previously evacuated its nationals from Libya in 2011 during the violent chaos leading to the toppling of the late dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
However, about 1,600 Filipinos, mostly doctors and nurses, elected to stay throughout that upheaval.
The Philippines lifted a travel ban to Libya in 2012, but re-imposed it in May.
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