By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Wednesday it had withdrawn its aid workers from Benghazi and called on both warring sides in Libya to spare civilians and medical staff.
The independent humanitarian agency was among the only aid agencies deployed in the rebel stronghold in the east, where Libyan forces advanced on Wednesday as diplomatic steps to stop the bloodshed ran aground.
"The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) today (Wednesday) transferred its staff in Benghazi to the eastern city of Tobruk, where it will continue to assist victims of the conflict," the Geneva-based agency said in a statement.
Before leaving Benghazi, the ICRC handed over to the Libyan Red Crescent enough food and other essential relief items to cover the needs of up to 15,000 people for one month, it said. The Libyan Red Crescent would continue humanitarian activities in and near the city.
Earlier this week, as troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi advanced and fighting increased, the ICRC removed its expatriate staff from the eastern town of Ajdabiyah.
"As we leave Benghazi and Ajdabiya after almost 20 days, we are extremely concerned about what will happen to civilians, the sick and wounded, detainees and others who are entitled to protection in times of conflict," said Simon Brooks, head of the ICRC mission in Libya.
"The ICRC once again calls on all those taking part to spare civilians and medical staff," he said.
ICRC medical teams in Ajdabiyah and Benghazi had been helping local doctors perform war surgery and also brought medical supplies to stock their hospitals.
Its teams had sent surgical supplies and equipment to other parts of the country, and recently visited detainees in Benghazi, according to the statement.
"In order to be prepared to assist further waves of people driven from their homes by the armed conflict, the ICRC will also maintain and reinforce its presence on the Egyptian and Tunisian borders," it said.
The United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday that Libyans fleeing the advance of Gaddafi's troops on Benghazi were crossing into Egypt in growing numbers.
The ICRC now deploys nearly 100 staff in connection with the Libyan conflict, which its President Jakob Kellenberger last week said amounted to civil war.
"We will remain in dialogue with both parties with a view to returning to Benghazi and the western part of the country when the security situation permits," Brooks said.