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Mass Evacuation From Lebanon Continues

Refugees from Lebanon disembark at the Cypriot port of Larnaca on July 19 (epa) PRAGUE, July 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As Israeli missiles and bombs continue to hit Lebanon, tens of thousands of people are fleeing to neighboring Syria and Cyprus.

The United States, Britain, and others are using naval ships to facilitate the evacuation to the island nation. At the Syrian border, customs procedures have been eased to help the thousands of refugees. In Damascus, university dormitories, hotels, mosques, and churches are opening their doors.

Syria Devises A Plan

While many wealthy Gulf State Arabs are renting out rooms at the city’s top hotels, the government is also providing for evacuees who cannot pay.

"Two days ago, at a meeting with the deputy minister of tourism," says Hazem Sebai, a manager at the Meridien Hotel in Damascus. "We created a crisis team to help the Lebanese people. And the Ministry of Tourism, in cooperation with the government, opened the [university campus] of Damascus -- about 500 rooms -- and all the mosques and churches are full of Lebanese. And all these [accommodations] are free of charge."’

Many of the refugees arrive with tales of their harrowing journey out of the crisis zone.

"Yesterday they bombed us," says Maria Haidar, a Lebanese woman who arrived in Damascus today. "They bombed us and we survived. We were on the road, and they were bombing all the cars that are trying to run away. They bombed the cars. It was the first time I saw people dying on the streets, I saw yellow cars -- Syrian cars, taxis.... They were bombing everything. I was in an a taxi with my little sister, she is 3 years old -- she is only 3 years old -- and she has seen all this."

For Cyprus, the flood of people from Lebanon comes at the peak of the tourist season, when there are already some 2 million holidaymakers on the island.

A Cruise Ship To Cyprus

Local authorities, assisted by representatives from the United States and Britain and other European countries, are also preparing to assist the incoming foreigners.

"Today, we have seen the start of the British evacuation out of Lebanon," says Charles Charalambous of the “Cyprus Weekly” newspaper in Nicosia. "There was a British warship that came into Limassol this morning. There were about 170 people on that. It looks like the British will now step up [their operation]. They have about six warships in the vicinity, so they will now step up their evacuation, and we are looking at about 5,000 British nationals coming through Cyprus in the next couple of days."

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud visiting a wounded Lebanese soldier near Beirut on July 18 (epa)

Charalambous says some 1,000 Americans are expected to arrive in Cyprus today.

"The Americans, they have got about 25,000 nationals in Lebanon," he says. "They are now stepping up their evacuation. We are going to see a cruise liner come into Larnaca this afternoon with up to 1,000 Americans on it. This will be the largest batch of American evacuees coming into Cyprus."

Unaccompanied Children

Many children are arriving on the island without their parents, who remained behind in Beirut.

"Some [Beirut residents] who have families just want to get their children out," Charalambous says. "There was a ship that came yesterday, a French-chartered ship, and that had over about 400 children on it and 200 of them were unaccompanied. Their parents just wanted the kids to get out while they stayed."

But not all foreigners have the resources to leave Lebanon for safer places, and not all governments are able to arrange transport to evacuate them.

Undocumented Workers

There are thousands of workers, mainly domestic servants, from South and Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe in Lebanon, and many of them are now stranded.

In response to appeals for help from a number of governments, the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) has sent a team to assess the plight of these people and devise a plan to evacuate those who want to go.

IOM spokeswoman Jemina Pandya tells RFE/RL that the governments of Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Moldova have asked the IOM to intervene on behalf of their nationals.

There are some 80,000 Sri Lankans in Lebanon alone, as well as large numbers of Filipinos, Bangladeshi, and others. Many of these people do not have proper travel documents.

Pandya says in some cases their employers have simply fled, leaving them to an uncertain fate.

"It's been a question of those domestic workers who have no [financial] means, who have no documents," Pandya said. "Some of them have been left by employers who have already departed from Lebanon, or who are in the process of leaving Lebanon."

The cost of transport out of Lebanon is rising rapidly as the crisis continues, and the IOM is talking to donor countries to cover the expense of the evacuation.

"Because there are no commercial flights going out of Beirut, we have to move people [overland] to Syria or to Jordan, and eventually repatriate them [home] from there, so it is a costly affair," Pandya said.