Evacuation for Britons as crisis in Lebanon grows

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The Independent Online

Two Royal Navy warships were dispatched to Lebanon last night in advance of a possible evacuation of up to 10,000 British citizens from the blockaded country.

The Ministry of Defence said it had sent the Royal Navy's flagship, the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, and an amphibious assault ship, HMS Bulwark, which is capable of carrying hundreds of people. HMS Illustrious is currently at Gibraltar and HMS Bulwark off the coast of Spain, by Barcelona.

Between 3,500 and 4,000 British families are registered in Lebanon, a Foreign Office spokesman said, with a further 10,000 individuals of dual nationality. Others could be holidaying in the country, which has suffered days of bombardment and blockade by Israel, following the kidnap of two Israeli soldiers by the militant group Hizbollah.

The international airport in Beirut is out of action after its runways were destroyed and Israeli warships are blockading the country's ports. The main road from Syria has also been bombed.

Dr Edward Smith, a British dentist based in Cyprus who is on holiday in Beirut, said he would welcome any evacuation.

Speaking from the Duke of Wellington, a British bar in the Mayflower hotel in central Beirut, he said he was due to leave Lebanon yesterday but had no way of getting out. "I'm on holiday with my wife and we are stranded," he said. "We can hear the bombs and the worry is if it escalates. People are keeping off the streets and all the shops are closed. Our hotel is, however, full of people who have left the south of the city, where the bombing is worse."

But the MoD said that no final decision had yet been taken on a full-scale evacuation. A spokeswoman said it was making "contingency plans". She added: "We're advising British nationals to get ready for departure at short notice if the situation changes."

European nations have started voluntary evacuation of thousands of their citizens from Lebanon. France has lined up ferries to take some of its 17,000 citizens from Lebanon to Cyprus, where Air France flights will take them to Paris. A convoy of 410 Italians and other EU citizens left yesterday.

The US State Department said yesterday that it was trying to determine how it might take out some of the 25,000 Americans in Lebanon and remove them to Cyprus, where they would be able to join commercial flights.

The escalating crisis in the Middle East is likely to force its way on to the agenda of the G8 summit of the world's richest countries, which began in St Petersburg today.

Russia is hosting the conference for the first time since joining the elite club, and the discussions are expected to focus on climate change and world trade. It hopes to assess progress, since Tony Blair put Africa and the plight of the world's poorest countries at the top of the leaders' agenda at last year's conference in Gleneagles, Scotland.

That meeting resolved to relieve the debts of 18 poor countries and to increase aid by $50bn (£27bn) a year. Development groups were disappointed because 60 countries needed the relief. The aid increase was only half of what the UN had said was required, and virtually no progress at all was made on the most important issue of all for the Third World ­ getting it a better deal to sell its products through trade.

Mr Blair is due to make a presentation on Africa and progress since Gleneagles.