Egypt said on Thursday it would not be involved in any military intervention in its neighbor Libya after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said discussions were under way about possible Arab involvement, as aid agencies on Egypt's border with Libya were preparing to face a refugee exodus from Libya.
"Egypt will not be among those Arab states. We will not be involved in any military intervention. No intervention period," Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Menha Bakhoum told Reuters.
She was responding to comments by Clinton, who visited Egypt before travelling to Tunisia where she spoke on Thursday about a possible Arab role. A French diplomatic source also said any action could involve France, Britain, the United States and one or more Arab states.
Aid agencies on Egypt's border with Libya are preparing to face a refugee exodus if Muammar Gaddafi's forces make good on their threat to fight their way into rebel-held eastern Libyan cities.
On Thursday, the numbers of Libyans passing the frontier -- middle class families from Benghazi and Tobruk with family or business connections in Egypt -- was more a stream than a flood, but the situation is precarious.
Up to 100,000 could flee
Aid workers at the Sallum border post told AFP that if pro-regime troops attack Benghazi, the port city that has become the base of the month-old revolt against Gaddafi's rule, up to 100,000 people could flee their homes.
Preparations are being made to receive them, but for now the border area is unprepared to cope with such an influx.
Sallum border crossing -- the main overland link between Libya and its big eastern neighbor, is on a parched and flat table of land atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the small Egyptian town of the same name.
The views down the escarpment and over the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean are spectacular, but the two-kilometer-wide (more than 1 mile) no man's land between the two countries is a grim place for trapped families.
Entirely exposed to bitterly cold winter winds and littered with plastic bags and the debris left by thousands of desperate families, there is little to welcome often desperate migrants from all over Africa and beyond.
Currently, more than 3,100 migrants without travel documents are trapped in the zone, sleeping in dilapidated customs sheds or under blankets in the dirt. Passing them daily, luckier Arab travelers crawl across in overloaded cars.
For now, said Andrea Oess of Swiss Humanitarian Aid, the agencies in place -- the Egyptian health ministry, United Nations, Red Cross and others -- can cope with the flow, providing assistance to those who need it.
But with fighting inching ever closer to Libya's eastern cities, plans are being laid for a huge tent city to accommodate those coming out.
"There is no humanitarian crisis, but conditions here are a bit poor," Oess told AFP at the frontier, as fellow aid workers held a planning meeting and inspected the unpromising site to prepare a contingency plan.
"If Benghazi is taken, we are expecting 40,000 to 100,000 people, and we are not ready," she said, adding that the agencies were seeking Egyptian authorization to bring tents into the inter-border area.
When the fighting erupted last month, black Africans were the first to flee. Thousands of Chadians, Somalis, Nigerians, Mauritanians, Sudanese and others were in Libya seeking work or passage to Europe.
Accused by some on the rebel side of working as mercenaries in Gaddafi's forces, they did not wait to face reprisals. Once at Sallum, however, they had no papers to cross into Egypt.
The International Organization for Migration is taking them in charge gradually, filtering them by nationality and trying to repatriate them -- a difficult task in the case of failed states such as Somalia.
For now, the situation of Libyans and Egyptian Libyan residents is easier. The road from Tobruk and Benghazi is still open, and they pass the frontier without much difficulty.
But that could change.
Analysts warn that Gaddafi would not hesitate to destabilize his neighbors by forcing hundreds of thousands of migrants across his borders, and in any case, his forces' reputation could spread panic among Libyans.
"There is lots of trouble in Benghazi, big problem," said Selma Hassan, a 30-year-old Egyptian, miming shooting while crammed in the back seat of her family car with female relatives and as much luggage as it could hold.
Others were more sanguine, claiming they were headed to Egypt on business or for medical treatment, insisting there was no problem. But they had large amounts of luggage, suggesting they fear a longer exile than planned.
Esayed Ramadan, a 52-year-old Libyan who runs a computer firm in Columbus, Ohio and has U.S. citizenship, ignored the State Department's warning to get out when the fighting erupted, preferring to finish his planned six-month stay.
"There was nothing going on," he said of Benghazi, although he admitted there had been the sound of a lot of gunfire, at a time when rebel fighters often loose celebratory fire skywards or open up on distant warplanes.