beirut airport hit 298.8.
(photo credit: AP)
Italian military planes evacuated 350 people to Cyprus on Sunday as Western countries stepped up efforts to evacuate their citizens from Lebanon amid continued Israeli bombardment.
The evacuees - including Spaniards, Italians, Austrians, Czechs and Irish - were flown to the Mediterranean island from Syria on Italian C-130 military transport planes, Cyprus' Foreign Ministry said. A Greek charter flight also brought in 140 passengers. They said it had taken 15 hours to drive from Beirut to Damascus, Syria, using lengthy routes to bypass bomb-damaged highways.
EU-member Cyprus has become a key transit point for evacuees from nearby Lebanon, following five days of airstrikes by Israel in response to attacks by Hezbollah militants.
The government said it will provide port and airport facilities to help the evacuation. Health minister Haris Charalambous told The Associated Press an Italian ship from Lebanon carrying 400 people was expected in Cyprus late Sunday or early Monday. He did not give other details.
US assessment teams arrived in Beirut on Sunday to draw up evacuation plans for 25,000 Americans in Lebanon, and are expected to work on ways of getting those who wish to leave to Cyprus.
"We obviously have plans and contingency plans should we need to bring people out," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters at the Group of Eight summit in Russia. "I get reports on this every couple of hours as to how this is going. Our ambassador who is on the ground will obviously do what we need to protect Americans."
The French government chartered a Greek ferry, the Ierapetra, to pick up French and European citizens in Lebanon. Cypriot officials said the ferry would transport some 1,200 people out of Lebanon, including unescorted children being sent to stay with relatives in France.
France, which has historic ties to Lebanon, moved to protect its more than 20,000 citizens there.
Officials from the Greek ministry of merchant marine said the vessel left the island of Rhodes and was due to make a stop in Cyprus, at the port of Limassol, to pick up medical personnel before traveling to Beirut.
Two British warships - including an aircraft carrier - were dispatched toward the Middle East on Sunday in preparation for the possible evacuation of Britons from Lebanon. Britain's Foreign Office has urged citizens not to attempt to leave the country, but said plans were being drawn up for an evacuation of British nationals if it is decided to be necessary and safe to carry out in the next few days.
Several European countries, including Sweden, Poland and Romania, announced separate initiatives to transport hundreds of their citizens out of Lebanon, most involving bus trips to neighboring Syria.
Canada said it would begin trying to evacuate Canadians who wished to leave, using commercial ships which it is positioning off the Lebanese coast.
An Olympic Airways flight chartered by Greece landed in Larnaca on Sunday with 140 evacuees, mostly Greeks and Cypriots, and then flew onto Athens. Citizens of the United States, Canada, Slovenia, France and Lithuania were on the plane. They had flown from Syria after a long and difficult drive from Beirut.
Greece said it would continue special flights to Syria to help up to 2,500 citizens living in Lebanon leave the country if they wished.
Greece also said it was sending a navy frigate to a Lebanese port to help in the evacuation. Other warships are on standby "for the possibility of a mass evacuation of Greek citizens," a Foreign Ministry statement said.
Since Wednesday, Israel has hit hundreds of targets in Lebanon, closing down the country's sole international airport and damaging the main highway to neighboring Syria. Israeli ships are also patrolling the coast.
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