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South Korean companies shelve Libya projects as workers flee riots

South Korea, one of the biggest investors in construction projects in the Middle East for more than 40 years and a major importer of oil, may have more to fear than most as it evacuates Koreans in Libya.

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Chinese workers who fled the unrest in Libya board a bus after crossing the border into Tunisia on Feb. 24. Tens of thousands of foreign nationals are trying to escape the North African country where leader Muammar Gaddafi is attempting to crush a revolt against his 41-year rule.

Zohra Bensemra/ Reuters

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Hundreds of South Korean workers and family members awaited evacuation Thursday from riot-torn Libya amid fears that protests there would escalate into attacks on foreign companies throughout the Middle East.

South Korean officials said a special plane is on the way to extricate Koreans from Tripoli and that there were plans to send ferries to Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi after rioters attacked half a dozen Korean projects, injuring three South Korean workers and a number of others from elsewhere in Asia.

As foreign companies began to shut down projects across Libya, the United States and other countries with stakes in the oil-rich Libyan economy also began evacuating citizens, issuing travel warnings while the death toll in clashes between government forces and demonstrators soared above 1,000.

South Korea, one of the biggest investors in construction projects in the Middle East for more than 40 years and a major importer of the oil needed to fuel its spectacularly successful economy, may have more to fear than most.

“Events in the Middle East have come out of the blue,” says Lee Jong-hwa, senior economic adviser to South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak. “The situation is a lot worse than expected.”

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