Britain set for largest evacuation since Dunkirk

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Britain is preparing to stage its largest evacuation since Dunkirk in 1940 as violence increases in Lebanon.

More than 22,000 people holding British and dual nationality, as well as some Commonwealth citizens, are likely to be taken out of the conflict area. The mission will have to negotiate its way past an Israeli naval blockade and risk being caught up in crossfire.

The coast of Lebanon has already experienced intense action. An Israeli boat was hit by an unmanned Hizbollah aircraft and missiles launched by the militia have also hit cargo ships. At the same time, Israeli gunboats have kept up a relentless pounding of targets onshore.

The Government has also revealed that British troops will be part of any United Nations force sent to southern Lebanon. At the G8 summit in St Petersburg, Tony Blair, along with the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, has been among the leading proponents of sending such a force.

The evacuation plans were upgraded yesterday with the Army's spearhead battalion preparing to move to the Mediterranean. Elements of the headquarters company of the 2nd Battalion The Light Infantry have moved to South Cerney, Gloucestershire, in readiness to fly to Cyprus to set up reception facilities for evacuees.

Five British warships have now been deployed to the Lebanese coast. The aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, the assault ship HMS Bulwark and the supply ship RFA Fort Victoria are in the region. By tonight, they will be joined by the destroyers HMS York and HMS Gloucester.

So far over 2,000 foreign nationals have been evacuated. They include citizens of Italy, Sweden and Denmark, who are thought to have returned home through Syria. France, which has 20,000 nationals in the country, evacuated 800 of its citizens on a ferry sent from Cyprus, which also carried 400 passengers from other European countries. Australia, with 25,000 passport-holders in the country, is moving people "by two or three busloads" through Syria. The US has the same number of citizens affected but has warned against journeys through Syria. Last night, official figures showed only 64 had left Lebanon.

Rania Fallah, 29, from Kilburn, north-west London, whose brother Selim is in Beirut with his three children, said: "The Government must move to get these people out instead of just talking about it. This has now been going on for five days and we are seeing people getting killed and getting hurt on a daily basis."