Thu, Jul 20, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Foreigners scramble to flee Lebanon

STRANDED Faced with mounting criticism at home, Canada, Australia and a host of other governments moved to evacuate their nationals from the war zone

AGENCIES , TORONTO, SYDNEY AND BEIRUT

Six chartered passenger ships were to be in position off the coast of Lebanon yesterday to begin evacuating up to 30,000 Canadians stranded in the crossfire there, in what could become the biggest evacuation of its citizens in Canadian history.

There are as many as 50,000 Canadian-Lebanese in Lebanon, but many of them have dual citizenship and live in Lebanon, so it was unclear how many would want to be evacuated.

Foreign Affairs officials said Canadians would be evacuated by ship from the port of Beirut. Authorities intend to evacuate some 4,500 a day, ferrying them to Cyprus, where three aircraft have been leased to fly them home.

Kim Girtel, a spokeswoman for foreign affairs, said about 30,000 Canadians in Lebanon have now registered with the embassy in Beirut. She acknowledged the evacuation will take time.

"It would be nice if we could Star Trek them out, but it's going to take time," she said. "Priority goes to people in greatest need."

Ottawa announced on Tuesday that citizens would not have to pay for the evacuation, a relief for many who already have lost vacations -- and some family members -- in the weeklong fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants based in southern Lebanon.

A Montreal family lost eight members, including four young children, on Sunday to an Israeli missile attack. They were all in one home near the southern border of Lebanon.

Many of Canada's 150,000 Lebanese live in French-speaking Montreal. Several hundred demonstrated in front of the Israel embassy on Tuesday.

Hassan Al-Akhras -- a cousin of the Montreal pharmacist who was killed in the Israeli airstrike, along with his mother, wife and four children and another cousin -- said he would demand an investigation into why Canadians were not evacuated sooner.

``This is criminal,'' he told the AP in Montreal. ``I want those responsible to be brought before the courts, starting with Mr. Harper. What are we, second-class citizens? Is he the prime minister of Israel or Canada? He failed his mandate; Harper put the rights of Israelis before those of Canadians.''

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in France on Tuesday on his way back from the G8 summit in Russia over the weekend, denied claims that Ottawa had been too slow to act.

"There have been hundreds of federal employees who have been working day and night to put in place the largest evacuation of Canadian citizens from another country in our history," Harper said. "This, under the circumstances, will be done extraordinarily quickly."

The US and other nations were also busy plucking their citizens from Lebanon yesterday. Nine military ships, including a helicopter carrier and a dock landing ship, and thousands of Marines and sailors were involved in the US operation, US officials said.

More than 2,400 Americans were to be evacuated by air and sea yesterday out of a total of 8,000 to be brought out.

Six British ships, including two aircraft carriers, stood by to rescue Britons. The destroyer HMS Gloucester reached Cyprus yesterday with 180 people from Beirut. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said some 5,000 would be moved by the end of the week.

Officials across the Asia-Pacific region also struggled yesterday to evacuate tens of thousands of citizens stranded in Lebanon, saying logistical challenges, lack of funds and Israel's refusal to agree to a brief ceasefire were hampering their efforts.

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