Commercial flights to evacuate students from Egypt

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia - The government has decided to evacuate the 3,000-odd Malaysian students in crisis-hit Egypt using commercial flights.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said instructions had been issued to book tickets for the students on any available commercial flight from last night.

"We have decided to bring back our students after getting the National Security Council (NSC)'s report on the situation in Egypt and on the advice of the council's advance team.

"We fear the situation there may escalate and take a turn for the worse. Our main priority is to ensure the safety of our students. "In this respect, we have started the operation to bring back students who have voluntarily agreed to come home," Najib said at a Hari Raya open house hosted by Chief Secretary to the Government Tan Sri Dr Ali Hamsa yesterday.

Egypt has been embroiled in turmoil after the country's military-backed government pressed on with its nationwide crackdown on protesters that had resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people over the last week. Egypt's interim government was reported as saying that 79 people had been killed in clashes on Saturday, bringing the death toll during the past four days to nearly 900.

Najib said the government had started booking commercial flight tickets to bring students home via Amman and Istanbul, as well as from other countries, from last night.

He said the government would not deploy military planes as not only would it be logistically expensive and massive, but also time-consuming as it would take longer to get landing clearance from the different countries.

"The C-130 Hercules military transport has to make between two to three stops before it can reach Egypt and it will take time to get the special landing clearance from these countries," he said, adding that it would take several days to evacuate all the students.

Najib said he had discussed with Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also education minister, to work with the Al-Azhar University to find ways to allow students who have returned home to sit for their examinations.

The prime minister said the government would reconsider sending students to Egypt in the future as Malaysia had had to evacuate its students in 2011.

"We are mulling the matter because Al-Azhar University is a prestigious university, especially in Islamic studies."

He said the government might need to look at all options, including working with Al-Azhar University to offer courses here.

In 2011, the Malaysia evacuated more than 8,000 students from Egypt under Op Pyramid, on the heels of the Arab Spring there.

On the need to hold a special Organisation of Islamic Cooperation session on the Egypt crisis, Najib said no such decision had been made by member countries.

The prime minister also said there was no need for a special Parliament sitting to discuss the crisis as it was Egypt's internal matter.

Najib, Muhyiddin, Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Nancy Shukri, Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar and Congress of Unions of Employees in the Public and Civil Services president Datuk Omar Osman joined the more than 2,000 people who attended Ali's open house.

NSC secretary Datuk Mohamed Thajudeen Abdul Wahab, who is leading a three-man team in Egypt to help with the evacuation, told the New Straits Times that initially, only half of the 3,000 students would be evacuated.

"The initial evacuation would only involve half of the students as some of them are sitting for their examinations.

"Students in the initial evacuation had volunteered to be flown out of the country. As for the remaining students, it is up to them to stay or get out of Egypt.

"We had just received the go-ahead from the prime minister to fly out the students and will spare no effort to accomplish our mission. "The council is working closely with the Malaysian embassy in Cairo to ensure it goes smoothly."

Thajudeen, however, could not say when the first batch of students could be flown out.

"We have to bear in mind that the 11-hour dusk-to-dawn curfew will start in a few hours. Time is short and I cannot confirm if we can fly out our students today (yesterday)."

Thajudeen also could not say how long the evacuation would take.