'1,000 Britons remain in Tunisia' says Foreign Office
- 17 January 2011
- From the section UK
About 1,000 British nationals remain in Tunisia as angry protests continue in the capital, Foreign Office minister David Lidington has told MPs.
There was no evidence the Britons - mostly expats - were being targeted but he renewed advice for those without a pressing need to be there to leave.
Those booked on British Airways flights home may have to remain in the country until Wednesday, it emerged earlier.
UK tour operators repatriated about 3,000 customers over the weekend.
Responding to an emergency question from shadow foreign secretary Yvette Cooper, Mr Lidington told the Commons: "We continue to advise against all non-essential travel to Tunisia.
"We advise anyone in the country, who does not have a pressing need to be there, to leave by commercial means. The airports are operating and airlines are flying into and out of Tunisia."
He added: "There's no indication that British nationals are being targeted by looters or rioters, but given the unpredictability of the situation, there is always the chance of their being caught up in incidental violence."
Ms Cooper accused the government of being slow to act by only sending in a specialist team on Sunday.
"British people abroad at times of crisis depend upon clear advice and rapid action, yet the government has been slow off the mark," she said.
She said the situation in Tunisia remained "tense and uncertain" and called tour operators to extend the scope of their refund packages for holidaymakers booked to travel to the country later this week.
Mr Lidington denied the government had been "lax" but said ministers would "look at any lessons that needed to be learnt".
The Foreign Office has urged Britons in the country to register with its Locate system so consular officials could keep in touch and provide assistance.
There were more protests in Tunis on Monday ahead of the announcement of a new national unity government.
Police used water cannon, tear gas and occasional gunshots in the capital, Tunis, to disperse demonstrators calling for the party of ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to relinquish power.
BA is operating its usual Monday service between Tunis and Gatwick, but for those unable to get on that flight, the next trip back is on Wednesday.
BA said seats were available on the midweek flight to Gatwick.
Four women from north London, who are staying in a hotel in Hammamet, are trying to fly home on British Airways before Wednesday.
One of the women, nurse Shefali Khan, 27, told the Daily Mail: "We are scared for our lives and we have been on to BA explaining that we are four girls and we want to go home but they are saying there is nothing they can do.
"We offered to upgrade and pay more for business tickets but they said there was no room."
Her sister Shelina Begum, 24, said: "This was supposed to be a holiday for my birthday but it's turned into a nightmare. I just want to go home.
"We are running out of money and our phones have no credit left because we have spent it all calling BA asking them to help us.
"We are four girls out here and there are people running around with guns as well as prisoners who have been released and they are all out robbing people."
Expat Richard Field, originally from London, told the BBC he had been unable to leave his home in the capital for two days and was running out of food.
"There are still soldiers, tanks and armed police on the streets outside my home and helicopters are flying overhead," he said.
"I can hear crowds on the streets nearby but no gunshots yet. There was gunfire all day yesterday.
"I am quite worried now as I haven't got much food left. I haven't been outside since Saturday. There are no shops open nearby.
"I will have to venture outside today to find food, but I am worried."
BA said it was continuing to fly to the capital, Tunis, for the time being "while continuing to monitor the situation carefully".
But customers scheduled to travel within the next 72 hours can postpone their trip, rebook for another destination or claim a refund.
Thomas Cook, Thomson and First Choice cancelled flights to Tunisia on Sunday, and Thomson and First Choice have also cancelled those on Wednesday.
All departures beyond these dates are currently still going ahead, but customers are advised to monitor tour operators' websites in the coming days.
Some of the expats known to be living in Tunisia left following the fall of the president.
He fled to Saudi Arabia last week after weeks of demonstrations in protest at corruption, unemployment and high food prices.