The evacuees began their 75 kilometre trip from Beirut to Cyprus with the sound of fighting ringing in their ears.
Two explosions from an Israeli air strike echoed over the city as families clustered at the assembly point.
“It’s very bad, very sad, I can’t believe what’s happening,” said a tearful Lubna Jaber, an Australian who had come to visit relatives in Lebanon , as she waited in downtown Beirut with about 350 compatriots hoping to board a ferry to Turkey.
Three ships docked in the port of Larnaca, Cyprus, overnight, a US- chartered cruise liner carrying 1,044 people, mostly Americans, a United Nations ship with an unknown number aboard and a French ship with 320 on board.
When unloaded from the vessels, the tired-looking evacuees were whisked past reporters to be taken to a large building for processing.
The conflict has so far seen nearly 300 people killed in Lebanon and nearly 30 in Israel.
Australians set to go
As many as 500 Australians will be able to leave Lebanon later today on British and Greek warships, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said.
Mr Downer says the government has chartered six ships to evacuate 6,000 Australians from the conflict, but told reporters that Israeli curfews were delaying its rescue operation.
Hundreds of Australians were left stranded on the dock at Beirut port yesterday, after Israel refused to extend a curfew and guarantee a Greek navy ship safe passage. Some Australians made it on board in time, but about 200 others could not be processed.
Mr Downer says charter ships will begin arriving in Beirut on Friday, “If all of those ships are able to get into Beirut, and that is a very big qualification, if they are, we will have enough capacity to take out around 6,000 people,” he said.
More than 7,000 Australians are registered with the embassy in Lebanon. The government estimates that 25,000 Australian citizens are living in Lebanon, although the vast majority have dual nationality and did not plan to leave.
Mr Downer believes that already 400 or 500 Australians have already managed to escape Lebanon, but there are still more waiting to escape. Family back in Australia say the government isn’t doing enough to get their loved ones home. It’s an accusation the prime minister denies.
“The main message I want to convey to distressed relatives in Australia, and indeed through them to their loved ones in Lebanon, is that 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,” John Howard told Arabic radio.
Concerns have also been raised about whether evacuees might have to meet costs involved in their evacuation. “Cost is not an issue as far as I’m concerned, and cost has never been an issue as far as (Foreign Minister Alexander) Downer is concerned,” Mr Howard said.
He also urged evacuees to travel light, after some people were unable to board a helicopter taking them to a British warship because of excess luggage. “I’m told, for example, that 40 people declined an offer to go out on a helicopter because they had their luggage and the British helicopter people understandably said ‘we can’t take the luggage as well’,” Mr Howard said.
One Melbourne man who escaped, Lebanon Victor Kheir said he was among about 100 Australians aboard the HMS Gloucester. He said the Australians were being given two nights accommodation in Cyprus, but would have to sort out their own flights home or to other destinations. “Or the Greek Islands – like me!”
Marines to the rescue
Meanwhile, about 40 United States Marines have landed on a beach in Beirut to help with the evacuation of US citizens caught up in the conflict. Attached to the troop carrier USS Nashville, they came ashore dawn.
It has been nearly 23 years since US Marines were in Lebanon; they left in 1983 after Hezbollah blew up a barracks in Beirut killing 220 Marines, 18 Navy personnel and three Army soldiers.
“I’m excited to go in and bring out the American citizens,” said Navy hospital corpsman Tanya Callaghan who was part of the mission. Her operation is only part of a massive land, sea and air operation to bring out thousands of Americans and caught in the fighting. A US official says that by Wednesday the United States will have the capacity to evacuate up to 6,000 Americans.
“Over the next couple of days you are going to be seeing a very large influx, maybe five, maybe six, maybe seven (thousand), I think we just have to wait and see.” said US Ambassador Ronald Schlicher.
Those Americans already out of the country are expected to be quickly returned to their homeland, among them eight-year-old Ali Makki, from Michigan. He said he had been frightened by Israeli bombs.
“The thing I was scared the most about was when they shot the bombs on our building,” he said.
Canadians fly out in style
The Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on a trip in Europe, has ordered his official plane to be diverted to Cyprus on Wednesday to pick up Canadians who have been evacuated from Lebanon.
France was evacuating its citizens by sea to Cyprus, while Germany sent at least 500 of its citizens to Syria in a convoy of buses. Poland and Sweden also took moves to evacuate their citizens.
Six British ships, including two aircraft carriers, stood ready to receive Britons from Lebanon. Some 5,000 Britons are to leave.
The Thai foreign ministry says all 100 Thai workers in Lebanon have either left the country or moved to areas they believe are safe. So far, 29 Thais have evacuated to the Syrian capital Damascus where they are waiting to fly home. Another 30 have left Beirut for areas in Lebanon they believe are safe, the ministry said.
Thailand has no plans to evacuate the 25,000 Thais working in Israel.
Meanwhile, the Philippine president Gloria Arroyo has appealed to Israel and Hezbollah to avoid harming some 30,000 Filipinos stranded in Lebanon, and urged the international community to help evacuate her citizens.
Filipino officials have conceded that they are unable to evacuate thousands of their citizens on their own, and have appealed to the United States, European countries and Gulf states to find space for Filipinos on planes and ships evacuating people from Beirut.
So far around 200 Filipinos are holed up in a Roman Catholic Church in the Christian part of Beirut waiting to be taken across the border into Syria, but many others are being told to sit tight.
The government also released just under three million US dollars to help the evacuation process and said it would try to help any of the 25,000 Filipinos in Israel who wanted to be taken out of the country.
Meanwhile Manila radio and television stations have heard emotional appeals from Filipinos stuck in the conflict zone. “I am very afraid. I have not slept since the bombings began,” said domestic worker Virgie Valencia, adding that she and other Filipina maids were holed up in a Beirut condominium in fear of their lives.
“I will not come back anymore,” she said. “I did not wait for my employers, it might take them a long time to decide to evacuate.”