Hundreds of Australian citizens hoping to flee Lebanon were left stranded after a Greek navy ship was forced to sail without them, the foreign minister said yesterday.
It was the latest embarrassment for the Australian government, which has come under increasing criticism for allegedly failing to extend adequate help for thousands of its citizens trapped in Lebanon since Israel began raining bombs on its Middle Eastern neighbor last week.
"We are concerned, we have not abandoned them, and any suggestion we have is unfair and I reject it totally, completely, but we are doing our best," Australian Prime Minister John Howard told Arabic radio. "We can't achieve miracles. We are living in a very difficult war zone."
He described claims that the government was treating those in Lebanon as second-class citizens as "offensive and wrong."
About 200 Australians were stranded on the docks in Beirut overnight, after the ship that had been enlisted to evacuate them to nearby Cyprus was forced to leave without them. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Israel had set a deadline for the ship's departure, and had refused to guarantee its safety after that time.
"Some Australians -- I think it was actually in the end about 45 -- got onto the Greek ship, but many didn't," Downer told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.
On Wednesday, the government said it had chartered a Turkish ship to carry its citizens to safety. But officials later found out the vessel had been double-booked, forcing them to scramble for another way to evacuate people who had lined up at the port to leave.
Australian Fatimah Weaver came to the docks with her five-year-old son -- who is confined to a wheelchair with a brain tumor -- but was unable to board the Greek ship. Frustrated, she called on Howard for help.
"He is not doing enough for these people here," she told ABC.
Downer said the government planned to charter six ships to carry 6,000 Australians out of Lebanon, "if all of those ships are able to get into Beirut -- and that is a very big qualification."
It was not immediately clear how many Australians were seeking to leave Lebanon. More than 7,000 Australians are registered with the embassy there, and about 25,000 Australian-Lebanese dual citizens are believed to be living there, Australian media have reported.
Meanwhile, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said her government was working to evacuate some of the 30,000 Filipino workers trapped in Lebanon.
"We shall be teaming up with other foreign countries that could help us in the evacuation process," she said. "Our diplomats shall also coordinate with private foreign firms for the lease of vessels and other means of transportation that could be utilized."
Foreign Affairs Department spokesman Gilbert Asuque told the Associated Press a bus with the first batch of 200 Filipinos was on its way to Damascus, from where they will be flown back to Manila.
Labor Undersecretary Danilo Cruz said at least 1,000 more people have signed up to leave. The government announced it was allocating US$2.8 million for evacuations.
"Some of them still do not want to go home because they say they have jobs there," Asuque said.
New Zealand was also working yesterday to find safe passage for around 80 citizens after seven made their own way out of the country by road and ship.