Upgraded travel alert for Egypt

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China issued a travel alert for Egypt on Sunday after at least 600 Chinese people were stranded in the African country as the security situation worsened on the sixth day of widespread anti-government protests.

China's embassy in Cairo said on Sunday that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs raised its travel advisory at 2:30 pm, advising people to postpone travel to Egypt. It is the second travel warning the ministry issued on Sunday and the third since Saturday.

The ministry said that there were no reports of Chinese casualties.

The embassy said on its website on Sunday that it provided assistance to more than 500 people from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan stranded at Cairo airport and dispatched food and water to more than 300 citizens there.

It also helped more than 100 Chinese people at Cairo railway station find accommodation in local hotels.

Two Chinese travelers were robbed on Saturday in the chaos, the embassy said.

The National Tourism Administration also said Chinese individuals and tour groups should "think carefully" about travel plans to Egypt.

In Shanghai, more than 70 percent of tourists who had booked trips to Egypt at China International Travel Service and were due to leave before Feb 1, have canceled, a senior employee, who requested anonymity, told China Daily on Sunday.

Meanwhile, those who planned to leave after Feb 1 choose to adopt a "wait and see" attitude before making a final decision, the employee said.

The agency said it has some 100 tourists in Egypt now. More than 10 of them are staying at a hotel in Cairo due to the curfew, while the others are touring the Red Sea and Luxor, which are not affected by the disturbances.

"We'll help the stranded tourists in Cairo leave the city as soon as possible," the official said.

Other major travel agencies, such as Ctrip and Jinjiang Travel, also told China Daily on Sunday that they have canceled all trips to Egypt during Spring Festival for safety reasons and said they will refund all tour fees.

Although the tourism industry is cautious, air travel to Cairo has not been disrupted much.

An Egypt Air flight to Cairo, from Beijing, is scheduled for evening departure on Tuesday.

Airlines including Hainan Airlines, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Lufthansa, told China Daily that departing flights from Shanghai to Cairo are on schedule.

Egypt was a top destination for Chinese tourists and the turmoil will take a huge toll, Jia Yin, manager of the East and Middle African outbound travel business at China Travel Service, told China Daily over the weekend.

A tourist trip to Egypt usually lasts about eight to 10 days, taking in Cairo and the Pyramids as well as a Nile cruise, he added.

In Cairo, President Hosni Mubarak met on Sunday with the military top brass, widely seen as holding the key to Egypt's future.

Mubarak held talks with Vice-President Omar Suleiman, Defence Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Chief of Staff Sami al-Anan and other senior commanders.

A tide of unrest is challenging Mubarak's rule and the high command's support is vital, analysts said, according to Reuters.

Egyptians faced lawlessness on the streets on Sunday with security forces and ordinary people trying to stop looters.

Throughout the night, Cairo residents armed with clubs, chains and knives formed vigilante groups to guard neighborhoods from marauders after the unpopular police force withdrew following clashes with protesters.

The armed forces said on Sunday that they arrested 450 suspected looters in Cairo and 63 in Suez, two governorates that have witnessed mass protests and rampant looting in the past few days, the official MENA news agency said.

Overnight, thousands of prisoners broke out of a prison in Wadi Natrun, north of Cairo, after overpowering the guards. Eight inmates died in the breakout, security sources said, according to Xinhua News Agency.

About 1,000 prisoners escaped from a prison in Fayoum, southwest of Cairo, on Sunday, the sources said.

Egyptian banks and the stock exchange are closed on Sunday. Most supermarkets and stores stayed shut for fear of looting.

Gunshots were heard in the upscale neighborhood of Maadi in south Cairo early Sunday morning.

Local residents were organized in groups to protect their properties from being looted and destroyed while the troops were deployed to key areas of the capital.

With rising fears of insecurity, some Western countries, such as the United Kingdom, the United States and France, have advised their citizens to return home and warned against traveling to Egypt.

The US embassy in Cairo said on Sunday "flights to evacuation points will begin departing Egypt on Monday, Jan 31", adding the evacuation was voluntary.

Demonstrations turned into riots on Saturday in Cairo and other major governorates, as government buildings were targeted by looters and clashes between protesters and police have led to a number of deaths.

According to the Egyptian Health Ministry, the nationwide death toll reached 51 by Saturday afternoon. The number may rise. Al Jazeera reported the death toll rose to 150 on Sunday.

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