Britain is to send two Royal Navy warships to the Middle East as part of the contingency plans for a possible evacuation, the ministry of defence said in London on Saturday.

 

A ministry of defence spokeswoman said the aircraft carrier Illustrious and the warship Bulwark would shortly be sent to the Middle East, but she would not comment on news reports that they would be used to evacuate Britons from the area.

 

"As you would expect we are monitoring the situation closely and are engaging in prudent contingency planning," said the spokeswoman, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.

 

"As part of this HMS Illustrious and HMS Bulwark will shortly head toward the region. They have been given no specific tasking."

 

Britain also advised its citizens not to attempt to leave Lebanon under their own steam and said it had not yet made a decision on whether to evacuate its nationals. There are 10,000 Britons in Lebanon, plus a further 10,000 with joint nationality.

 

France, Italy and Sweden followed Britain's lead in preparing to evacuate their citizens, mainly by land to Syria or by ferry to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

US plans

Tourists have been leaving
across the Syrian border

The US State Department said it was working on a plan with the Pentagon to transport Americans to Cyprus, where they can board commercial aircraft for onward travel. There were around 25,000 US citizens in Lebanon.

Air travel from Beirut was made impossible after the international airport was shut down on Thursday after Israeli air strikes blew craters in the runways.

 

Dominique de Villepin, the French prime minister, announced that "sea and air facilities, both civilian and military" would be made available for any French national who wished to leave.

 

France began deploying about 800 military personnel plus aircraft to Lebanon, chartered a ferry and dispatched two warships as part of its operation to evacuate its own citizens and others to Cyprus.

 

Cyprus as a European Union member said on Friday that it was ready to support a joint EU-co-ordinated mass evacuation of Europeans stranded in Lebanon.

 

France sends frigate

 

Naval sources in Toulon said France was sending a landing-craft transporter with four helicopters and equipped with a hospital and operating rooms, should they be needed. A French frigate was also due to arrive in the area on Thursday.

 

France is sending a landingcraft
with hospital facilities

Up to 20,000 French, including residents, tourists and business travellers are currently in Lebanon, according to a foreign ministry estimate.

 

Italy said the foreign ministry had already organised with its embassy in Beirut a convoy of 410 Italian citizens and other nationals, mainly from the European Union, heading for Syria.

 

However, witnesses reported that an Israeli bombardment forced the convoy to stop at Tripoli, Lebanon's second city located about 90kms (60 miles) north of Beirut.

 

About 15 buses carrying European nationals were stopped at Tripoli until security conditions allowed them to continue on the route to Syria, witnesses said.

 

Arturo Parisi, Italian defence minister, ordered the dispatch of a ship of the Italian navy and two large C130 air force transport planes to the region to help evacuate Italians and other stranded foreigners.

 

The deployment was of a strictly humanitarian character, a statement said.

 

Italians staying put

 

The foreign ministry said there were more than 1,000 Italians in Lebanon, most of whom had said they did not yet wish to leave.

 

Vienna alerted Israel to plans to evacuate its citizens by bus after the main road into Syria was heavily bombed in recent days, Austrian radio reported. Around 120 Austrians were in Lebanon.

 

Turkey said a bus carrying 32 of its nationals, mostly tourists and business people, as well as two French nationals, crossed the Yayladagi border gate between Turkey and Syria on Saturday, the Anatolia news agency reported.

 

From Damascus, an Olympic Airline plane brought 50 Greeks and other nationals from Lebanon to Athens, the Greek foreign ministry said.

 

More than 100 Spaniards and other nationals resident in Lebanon arrived on Saturday at a military air base near Madrid aboard a transport plane chartered by the defence ministry. Some 600 Spanish nationals are resident in Lebanon, said the foreign ministry.

 

Around 50 Swiss and 30 Germans arrived in Damascus by bus on Saturday.

Morocco sends C130s

King Mohammad has instructed to
dispatch C130 transport planes

Morocco also announced that it was evacuating several dozen of its nationals by air. The foreign ministry said instructions had come from King Mohammed VI to dispatch C130 transport planes to bring them home.

 

The Moroccan embassy in Beirut on Friday organised a first group of evacuees who left by road for Damascus.

 

Ukraine also began evacuating its nationals via Syria. With more than 1,600 in Lebanon, the foreign ministry in Kiev said its embassy in Lebanon and consular services were preparing to evacuate those who wished to leave.

 

Bulgaria's foreign ministry said meanwhile that it was working on a contingency plan to evacuate Bulgarians from Lebanon. About 500 Bulgarian nationals are currently residing in Lebanon and 300 of them have said they want to evacuate, national radio reported.

 

Poland said it was making arrangements for the evacuation of 100 of its citizens who wish to leave the country by Monday. Around 700 Poles live in Lebanon.

 

The 214 Polish soldiers stationed in Lebanon as part of a UN force were not in danger and an evacuation was not planned, Warsaw said.

 

Sweden also said it was working on evacuation plans for its 2,000 citizens in Lebanon, as did the Netherlands for its 600 nationals. Russia also said it was preparing for a possible evacuation.

 

Berlin advised its citizens not to go to Lebanon, but said it had no mass evacuation plans for the 1,100 German nationals already there. It said it was in "close and permanent contact" with other EU countries in Beirut and was "preparing for all scenarios".