- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

NICOSIA, Cyprus — British military helicopters, a ferryboat chartered by France and an Italian warship yesterday spearheaded an unprecedented evacuation of foreigners from Lebanon to the safety of Cyprus.

Cypriot authorities have braced for the arrival of an estimated 80,000 people at the height of the island’s tourist season when most hotel space is booked. Volunteers have been mobilized to care for about 200 unaccompanied children expected aboard the Greek ferry Lerapetra.

No exodus of such magnitude has been seen in the Middle East for years, even at the height of Lebanon’s 16-year civil war and the 1982 Israeli invasion.

Cypriot medical personnel and psychologists have been dispatched to the ports of Larnaca and Limassol, expected to bear the brunt of the mass evacuation. Evacuees brought in British military helicopters to the Akrotiri Royal Air Force (RAF) base were examined by British doctors.

Britain has offered temporary shelter at its two bases here, which housed Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot refugees during and after the 1974 Turkish invasion.

Among unexpected foreign visitors to the island was French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who traveled from Cyprus to Beirut by helicopter to demonstrate solidarity with Lebanon.

Cypriot officials said they did not expect evacuees to remain long on the island before proceeding to their home countries and offered emergency visas on arrival “on humanitarian grounds.” The offer concerns mainly citizens of countries outside the European Union, most of them Lebanese with dual nationality.

Statistics show that Lebanon’s residents with foreign passports include 40,000 Canadians, 30,000 Filipinos, 25,000 Americans, 25,000 French and 12,000 Britons. Several thousand are from other countries in Europe.

U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman told the Associated Press in Beirut that 1,000 more Americans will leave today. By the end of the week, that many Americans will be evacuating each day, he said.

Mr. Feltman said 120 Americans had been ferried by military helicopter to Cyprus. Marines helped children put on helmets and flak jackets before guiding them up into the aircraft. Mr. Feltman stood nearby waving and blowing kisses to the departing Americans, AP reported.

“It is a chaotic situation in Lebanon,” said R. Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, speaking on CBS’ “The Early Show.” “Our advice to American citizens, if they’re in a dangerous area, is to stay put. Get in touch with us.”

The first 339 evacuees to arrive in Cyprus were brought by the Italian warship Luigi Durand de la Penne. A British naval task force has arrived in the eastern Mediterranean to evacuate an estimated 12,000 Britons, AP reported.

The United States has chartered a ferry to be escorted by a destroyer for the evacuation operation. To board the ship, Americans must sign a note pledging to reimburse the U.S. government. They will be charged the cost of a single commercial flight from Beirut to Cyprus, usually about $150 or $200.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, objected to billing evacuees.

“A nation that can provide more than $300 billion for a war in Iraq can provide the money to get its people out of Lebanon,” Mrs. Pelosi told AP.

Of the estimated 25,000 Americans in Lebanon, about 8,000 reportedly want to leave.

Jonathan Chakhtoura, a 19-year-old Lebanese-American student told AP, “Every time I call [the U.S. Embassy] to see what’s going on the lines are busy. When they answer, they say they don’t know.

“There is so much confusion. If it’s security they are worried about, then I think we will be more secure if we know what is going on.”

A Pennsylvania man and his wife on the Swedish-chartered ship expressed anger at how long the evacuation was taking.

“I can’t wait anymore. I’m sorry it’s taking them too long,” the man told AP, declining to give his name.

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