Chinese exodus leaves behind Libya ghost town

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jun 15 2011 10:48 PM | Updated as of Jun 16 2011 06:48 AM

BENGHAZI, Libya - Hundreds of cement mixers, cranes, and forklifts stand silent on a massive construction site among grey buildings left unfinished when Chinese workers abandoned Libya as fighting flared.

The "New Benghazi" project which employed 11,000 came to an abrupt halt when the builders, China State Construction Engineering Corporation, evacuated its workers as an anti-regime uprising broke out in mid-February.

China has significant commercial interests in Libya including oil, railway and telecoms projects.

But the Asian economic powerhouse was forced to evacuate more than 35,000 migrant workers from the North African country in the largest such overseas operation ever undertaken by Beijing.

"Within three days, at the onset of the revolution, they were all gone by boat," said rebel official Nuri Ahmad, referring to the Chinese migrant workers.

Ahmad has been entrusted by the Benghazi-based opposition National Transitional Council (NTC) with taking over the project and turning the ghost town into a viable city on the edges of the Mediterranean Sea.

According to the plans drafted by the Chinese builders, "New Benghazi" was expected to house more than 150,000 people and comprise more than 200 four-storey buildings, as well as schools, hospitals, football fields and basketball courts and eight mosques.

The mammoth project spread across 1,770 hectares (about 4,375 acres) and included vast green areas. In all there were to have been 20,000 housing units.

Ahmad said the NTC, which is now overseeing the project, hopes to start handing out the first apartments from September.

But Ahmad, who receives visitors in an office located on so-called Beijing Street, is unable to give the cost of the project on which the Chinese had been working for the past three years.

"I have no idea how much the housing units will cost," he said.

The Libyan regime of strongman Muammar Gaddafi had been financing the cost of the project.

The Chinese constructors were paid "in several ways with oil money."

When the uprising against Gaddafi's regime broke out in mid-February, China evacuated its workers and suspended all its projects in Libya.

In the first weeks of the uprising against Gaddafi, the "New Benghazi" was caught in the crossfire of the fighting between opponents and loyalists of the regime.

Several buildings now stand as testimony to the violence.

Many have broken windows, others have been peppered with rocket fire.

Five hundred Libyans worked on the site alongside the 11,000 Chinese.

Libyan Ibrahim el-Mismari drove a crane but now he has joined a team tasked with securing the grounds and prevent squatters from moving in.

"We had good working relations with the Chinese, but the salaries were low," said Mismari who is now paid by the NTC.

"When calm returns to Libya, the Chinese will come back. I am sure of it," he said.