WITH HUNDREDS of evacuees flooding into Cyprus and thousands more expected as Israel continues its military offensive in Lebanon for the sixth straight day, the island has turned into the central evacuation hub of the region.
Yesterday afternoon French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin travelled to Lebanon via Cyprus to demonstrate support for and solidarity with the Lebanese people, according to President Jacques Chirac’s office. Villepin flew from Paris to Paphos, where he was then transported by helicopter to Beirut.
An Italian military ship carrying 339 passengers, roughly half of them Italians, arrived yesterday at around 9pm at Larnaca port.
The French government has also hired a Greek cruise ship, “Ierapetra”, to evacuate nationals, mostly European. The cruise ship left Cyprus for Lebanon yesterday morning and is expected to arrive back in Cyprus early today with 1,200 or so passengers, including 300 children, 200 of whom are unescorted.
Ten volunteers from Cyprus are on the boat to provide support for the 200 unescorted children, most under the age of 10. Aside from psychologists, medical doctors are also on board to tend to injured passengers.
The Foreign Ministry yesterday announced that the three Lebanese-Cypriot children who were stranded in Lebanon’s Nabadiye were taken in a private vehicle to the Cyprus Embassy in Beirut. Efforts are now underway to return them to Cyprus.
Cypriot Foreign Ministry's Consular Affairs Division Director Omiros Mavromatis said that another four or five boats, carrying more than 5,000 passengers from Lebanon, are expected in Cyprus later this week.
In London’s first official evacuations since the beginning of the offensive, Royal Airforce Chinook helicopters yesterday transported British nationals in two separate trips from Lebanon to the Akrotiri Base, where the passengers were evaluated medically and then released.
The Defence Ministry has said that it would facilitate a French military aircraft transporting French foreign ministry staff to Israel.
Cypriot authorities yesterday met to prepare for the large influx by air and sea of people from Lebanon and to determine how to best facilitate and coordinate the procedures with those nations using Cyprus as a base for evacuations.
Nicosia has consented to the use of Cypriot ports and airports in a joint EU 25 evacuation plan and is also set to grant a US request to use Cyprus as a central hub of its evacuation of Americans out of Lebanon.
The US said that it had hired a cruise ship for the possible large-scale evacuation and had sent a Navy destroyer as an escort.
Other countries like Russia are evacuating their citizens through Syria.
Foreign Ministry Consular Official Kyrillos Nikolaou told the Cyprus Mail yesterday that any Lebanese evacuees will be “given visas on arrival in Larnaca on humanitarian grounds”.
Between Saturday night and Sunday morning five Italian military C-130 planes transferred Italian and other EU nationals from Lebanon to Cyprus.
Several Olympic Airways planes since Saturday have also been evacuating EU nationals to Cyprus via Damascus, Syria, with one transporting 40 Cypriots.
But not everyone is trying to flee Lebanon. Manager of Flamingo Beach hotel Antonis Josephides said that a number of Lebanese nationals staying at his hotel are now trying to return to Lebanon as they were in Europe when the offensive began.
“But we are expecting a large number [of evacuees] to be arriving with the ships,” Josephides said. “It’s a very volatile situation here.”