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MacKay compares Lebanon evacuation with mall at Christmas

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2006 | 7:35 AM ET

Chaotic scenes during the evacuation of Canadians from Lebanon in the summer looked worse than they actually were, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said.

"You would get the same kind of chaos at a shopping mall at Christmas near closing time or at an airport during a snowstorm," he told a Senate committee on Wednesday evening.

The committee is looking into the evacuation of 15,000 Canadians from Lebanon after violence erupted when Israel attempted to recover two soldiers seized by the militant group Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon. 

At the time, the Canadian government was accused of being unprepared to remove an estimated 50,000 Canadians from the scene of the fighting. Even after Ottawa leased ships to take Canadians to Cyprus and Turkey, the process was slow and fraught with problems, it was reported.

MacKay's appearance was intended to help the committee understand what went right and what went wrong in the Canadian response.

The evacuation, MacKay said, went very well. He called it "truly a success story for which all Canadians can be proud."

It is difficult to keep track of up to 50,000 Canadians living in a foreign country, and even harder to organize and move them, said MacKay.

His appearance came on the same day that the White House warned it had evidence that Syria, Iran and Hezbollah are trying to destabilize and overthrow Lebanon's government.

Echoing the U.S. warning, the minister said Lebanon could again erupt into violence.

"Hezbollah are a terrorist organization armed to the teeth. They are like the Taliban on steroids," he said. "They are a very dangerous organization."

MacKay said the cost of the evacuation now stands at $66 million, but that only covers spending by Foreign Affairs. At least six other departments and agencies also participated, and the final cost isn't expected to be released until the new year.

Liberal Senator Pierre De Bané asked why there are only nine staff at the Canadian Embassy in Beirut, given the number of Canadians in the country.

MacKay said that embassy staffing was one of many areas now under review after the evacuation. The government is also considering whether Canadians with dual citizenship who live outside Canada should pay a tax or meet other conditions to keep their passports.

There were complaints that the evacuation from Lebanon included Canadian passport holders who had not lived in Canada for years.

The review is not expected to end until 2007.

Israel sent the troops into Lebanon after Hezbollah guerrillas launched a cross-border raid on July 12 and abducted two Israeli soldiers. Fighting continued for 34 days before a UN-brokered ceasefire was established. Under that agreement, UN soldiers will ensure the Lebanon-Israel border is peaceful.

More than 150 Israelis and 850 Lebanese were killed in the fighting.

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