Around 100 Britons are currently being evacuated from Libya onto a Royal Navy survey ship amid worsening violence.
Staff at the UK embassy – shut down against a backdrop of deadly fighting between rival militias in Libya – are among those expected to seek sanctuary in Malta following the so-called “assisted departure” operation.
A Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) spokesman said: “We are currently carrying out an assisted departure. It is happening at the moment. The majority (of those being evacuated) are British.”
It is thought the Plymouth-based HMS Enterprise moored just off the Libyan capital of Tripoli has dispatched a smaller vessel to fetch the evacuees. Between 100 and 300 Britons are believed to be in Libya.
Many of the consular staff were evacuated last Monday but the ambassador and some core staff remained.
Since the overthrow in 2011 of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi by rebels supported by British and French air strikes, the north African country has descended into a state of lawlessness as rival militias struggle for power and wealth
Libya is in the grip of its worst violence since the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
In the last few days, sporadic fighting between rival militias has spread northwards in the capital Tripoli, including into the area where the British embassy is situated.
Tourists have been advised against all travel to the country by the Foreign Office.
HMS Enterprise’s commanding officer, Commander Mark Vartan, said: “This is a period of uncertainty for UK citizens based in Libya but we have been proud to play our part in enabling their move to safety.
“My ship’s company have adapted to the challenge superbly, making as much space as possible and providing essential food, shelter and security for the journey.”
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said: “I thank the crew of HMS Enterprise for their support and professionalism in carrying out this important task.”
Any Britons unable to take advantage of this opportunity to leave have been told they should find their way home on commercial flights, with limited departures from Misrata and Maitega airports.
On Wednesday, British Airways suspended flights to and from Tripoli up to and including Tuesday due to the security situation at the country’s main international airport.
Yesterday it was reported that militia fighting for control of the international airport in Tripoli had killed 22 people, a spokesman for Libya’s interim government said.
In a statement, it said “heavily armed groups” have shelled “civilian targets” endangering thousands of citizens and leaving hundreds of families displaced.
The 22 people killed on Saturday are the latest casualties in fighting that has claimed more than 200 lives in recent weeks.
Islamist militias from the coastal city of Misrata have led the assault on the airport, seeking to seize it from another militia from the mountain town of Zintan.
The fighters are mainly drawn from the former rebels who toppled Gaddafi, who now feel entitled to a share of the spoils from Libya’s oil wealth in the deeply divided tribal culture.