CYPRIOTS returning from Lebanon early yesterday spoke of their fear and relief after their night-long ordeal travelling from Beirut to Damascus ended on a Cyprus Airways plane home.
A special flight chartered by the government arrived in Larnaca at 6.30am yesterday, carrying 102 Cypriots, six Britons, four Czechs, two French nationals and one American citizen who had been stranded in Beirut, which is under attack by Israel.
The Foreign Ministry crisis team had been working around the clock to locate and evacuate Cypriots holidaying or living in Lebanon after Israel bombed Beirut airport early on Thursday morning.
Lebanon is now under an air, land and sea blockade by Israel, which has destroyed main roads and bridges that allow access to the country.
Two busloads of Cypriots and other nationals had been due to travel to Syria on the main Beirut-Damascus road on Thursday night to catch the special CY flight at around 11pm.
However, given the amount of other traffic on the road, and the risk that it would be attacked by the Israeli air force, the passengers were taken on a 300-mile detour to enter Syria. They left Beirut at 6pm on Thursday and did not arrive in Damascus until 4am. Israeli aircraft did strike the main highway linking Beirut to Damascus shortly after midnight.
Passengers were relieved to arrive back in Cyprus and had nothing but praise for the Foreign Ministry and the Cypriot embassies in Beirut and in Damascus.
“We are grateful to the embassies and to the Foreign Ministry,” one woman told reporters at Larnaca Airport. “I have some friends from other countries in Lebanon and no one was interested in whether they were OK or not.”
“My house in Beirut is quite high up and I saw the fire and the smoke from the bombing,” said a second woman. “We couldn’t find a taxi to leave to go to the embassy so a friend took us there. I haven’t slept for two days trying to think of a way to send my three daughters back to Cyprus. Thank God we are here now.”
Foreign Ministry Permanent Secretary Sotos Zacheos said there was still a Cypriot family of five stranded in southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold which has come under heavy fire by the Israelis.
Zacheos said that with the state of roads and bridges in the area, evacuating the family would be difficult.
“We will continue our efforts to see how we can get them out of a very difficult situation, since the area is cut off with battered roads and bridges,” he said.
Zacheos said Thursday night’s evacuation had been a success. “The buses took a northern route instead of going southwards for security reasons,” he said. “The journey was very long and it took a lot of effort to ensure that these persons would be taken safely to Damascus.”
Another 20 Cypriots were yesterday due to be evacuated to Athens, along with 60 Greek nationals after the Greek government said it had chartered an Olympic Airways plane and was ready to fly it to Jordan to pick up Greek and EU nationals.