Italian military planes evacuated 350 people to Cyprus amid continued Israeli bombardment of its northern neighbour.
Cyprus’ foreign ministry confirmed the evacuees were flown to the Mediterranean island from Syria on Italian C-130 military transport planes. They included Spaniards, Italians, Austrians, Czechs and Irish.
In addition a Greek charter flight also evacuated 140 people, many who said they drove 15 hours from Beirut to Syria’s capital Damascus, using lengthy routes to avoid bomb-damaged highways.
The Cypriot government has offered sea port and airport facilities to help in the evacuation of stranded foreigners in nearby Lebanon, making the nation a key transit point.
Cyprus’ health minister, Haris Charalambous, told The Associated Press an Italian ship from Lebanon carrying 400 people was expected in Cyprus late Sunday or Monday local time.
The exodus from Lebanon followed five days of air-strikes by Israel in response to attacks by Hezbollah militants.
Australian citizens stranded
The evacuation of three busloads of Australians trapped by the fighting in Lebanon could begin as early as today.
Foreign Minster Alexander Downer said talks had been held with the Israeli government to ensure their safe passage through Syria and Jordan.
Children will be given priority and other Australian citizens will be evacuated on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“This is a difficult and hazardous exercise,” said Mr Downer. “We think … we have a route that will be reasonably safe but there is nothing perfectly safe in Lebanon at the moment.”
Around 25,000 dual Lebanese-Australian nationals were living in Lebanon along with over 4,000 Australian visitors.
France to evacuate Europeans
France, which has more than 20,000 citizens in Lebanon, chartered a Greek ferry to pick up French and other European citizens in Lebanon.
The ferry will transport about 1,200 people out of Lebanon, including unescorted children being sent to stay with relatives in France.
The French foreign ministry said all Europeans could board the Greek ferry with priority going to the injured, the ill, the aged and unaccompanied children. Special Air France flights will take evacuees to Paris.
France said it also was sending a transport ship to Cyprus with two portable surgery units and four helicopters as a “preventative” measure.
The frigate Jean-de-Vienne was ordered to deploy to the eastern Mediterranean.
US officials recently arrived in Beirut 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.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters at the Group of Eight summit in Russia that plans are being made should the US need to bring its citizens out.
“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,” Ms Rice said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters at the G8 an aircraft would leave Moscow Monday morning to fly Russian nationals home from the Jordanian capital Amman.
“It is due to repatriate 74 citizens of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States, mostly women and children,” Mr Lavrov said.
Two British warships, including an aircraft carrier, have been dispatched towards the Middle East in preparation for the possible evacuation of Britons from Lebanon.
Britain’s Foreign Office 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.
Canada said it would begin trying to evacuate Canadians who wished to leave, using commercial ships which it is positioning off the Lebanese coast.
It comes as Canada’s Foreign Minister Peter MacKay confirmed eight Canadians were killed in Lebanon on Sunday.
Five of the dead were from the same family, killed in an Israeli air attack which hit their home in Aitaroun near the Israel-Lebanon border. Mr MacKay added that six others have been critically injured.