July 16, 2006

Foreigners flee Lebanon

By Alaa Shahine

BEIRUT (Reuters) - France, the United States, Britain and a
host of other nations scrambled to evacuate their citizens from
Lebanon on Sunday as Israeli air strikes pounded the country
for a fifth day.

Foreigners have fled in thousands of cars to neighboring
Syria since Thursday. Israeli planes, retaliating for Hizbollah
rocket attacks and the capture of two soldiers on Wednesday,
have killed more than 150 people.

A U.S. Marine helicopter with 21 passengers --
non-essential U.S. embassy staff and Americans with compelling
medical needs -- left Lebanon for Cyprus on Sunday, U.S.
officials said.

France hired a cruise ship, which should arrive on Monday
and can carry 1,000 to 2,000 passengers, to help evacuate its
citizens and other Europeans to Cyprus. It also hired another
ferry with Norway which can take up to 650 people.

So far most foreigners have been forced to flee overland to
take flights from Syria after Israeli forces bombed the Beirut
airport and its ships began patrolling Lebanon's Mediterranean

Sotos Zakhaeos, the director-general of France's Ministry
of Foreign Affairs, said hiring the passenger ships was "a
French initiative for the transportation of all European

"It will set off, likely late today from Cyprus and start
picking people up tomorrow. This is a European initiative, and
the security guarantees have been given," he told Reuters.

A former French colony, Lebanon is home to 17,000 French
residents with another 4,000-5,000 French nationals visiting
the country.

Italy has moved a warship into waters near Beirut to assist
with a second wave of evacuations after an Italian convoy drove
460 people, mostly Italians, to Syria on Saturday.

Britain said a rapid deployment team had arrived in Beirut
to assist British nationals and that naval assets were in the
regions. It was also sending two Royal Navy ships for a
possible evacuation of some of the 3,500 to 4,000 British
families and 10,000 dual nationals registered in Lebanon.


Canada was preparing to evacuate some of its citizens,
Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said on Sunday after seven
Canadians were killed in Lebanon.

Around 16,000 Canadians have registered with their embassy
but MacKay said the real figure could be as high as 40,000.
Canada has a significant population of Lebanese origin.

MacKay said Canada -- working with Britain and France --
was securing commercial vessels and positioning them off the
coast of Lebanon to prepare for an evacuation.

Germany said it had helped around 200 of the roughly 1,100
Germans to leave over the weekend and more than 130 Swiss were
evacuated on Saturday and Sunday by bus to Damascus.

Other European and Arab countries sent military or
chartered civilian aircraft to Syria to fly people home.

A White House National Security Council spokesman said the
U.S. embassy would remain open.

Washington is working on a plan to transport Americans to
Cyprus, from where it recommended they return to the United
States by commercial airlines.

The State Department estimates about 25,000 U.S. citizens,
including people with dual citizenship, live in Lebanon,
although holiday visits could mean many more are there.

European Union president Finland said there was no EU
evacuation plan.

Belgium said some of the 1,200 Belgians in Lebanon with
dual nationality and 540 non-resident Belgians would be
evacuated on the French ships.

Greece said an Olympic Airlines flight from Damascus had
brought Greeks and others to Athens and a convoy of 136 people,
including Greeks, Cypriots and other Europeans, had left
Lebanon for Syria where another flight awaited them.

(Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux)