Ships and aircraft arrive in Beirut for mass evacuation from war zone

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A flotilla of ships gathered off the coast. Planes landed hourly at the airfields of neighbouring countries. US and British marines waited to land on shore. As the conflict between Israel and Lebanon continued to intensify yesterday, the biggest international evacuation of recent times was in full swing, with British, US, French and Italian citizens leaving by air and sea.

The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Gloucester docked in Beirut and swiftly began boarding British citizens. The 2,300-strong US 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit was also on its way, the first time that American forces have been in Lebanon in any numbers since 241 were killed in a bomb attack in Beirut in 1983. Helicopters began evacuating the US embassy, recalling the airlift out of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.

As the foreigners departed, the residents of Beirut took their chances on the jammed roads out of the city. Convoys of cars and vans, crammed with desperate and frightened families, attempted to leave Beirut, makeshift white flags waving from the windows of their cars. But with Israeli warplanes pounding the roads and bridges there was no guarantee that they would reach the relative safety of the Syrian border.

For Britain, this is the largest rescue operation since the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940 ­ with more than 22,000 British and dual nationals being moved out. Sixty were flown by RAF Chinook helicopters to Cyprus from the Lebanese capital yesterday. Another 100 were leaving on HMS Gloucester. Four more ships, including the aircraft carriers HMS Illustrious and HMS Invincible and the assault ship HMS Bulwark, with Royal Marines on board, are due to arrive today. But the British Government has faced strong criticism that it has been slow in reacting to the crisis. The French government has already taken 1,200 Europeans out of Lebanon, the Italians have evacuated more than 700 and the Greeks more than 350.

Some Britons complained that they had not been given information about the evacuation and that they have not been able to get through to the British embassy in Beirut on the telephone.

Julie Boyle from Essex, who works as a DJ, was trapped in a hotel in Beirut. She said: "No one told me I could be evacuated by ship. The British embassy here don't answer the telephone. It just rings and rings and they don't answer."

Firas Khwaja, in Tripoli with his family, said: "We have not heard anything from the embassy yet and it is becoming more and more worrying by the second. All we can do is hope for the best."

Defending the Government's actions, Tony Blair said: "We have acted as quickly as we possibly can. We have taken out of Lebanon the first 60 people ­ that was done yesterday. The first ship will come today, so obviously we can take far greater numbers out."

The airlift out of Beirut involved Chinook helicopters. Wing Cdr Carl Scott, chief of staff of Joint Helicopter Command, said: "We flew in Javier Solana and took the opportunity to take 40 people out ­ the ill, the young, elderly and those you would expect to need to be taken out. They were clearly under duress but not exceptionally concerned ­ they had the classical stoical British manner and did not appear particularly distressed."

Britons waiting to board HMS Gloucester described their experience of being caught up in the conflict. Samantha Bradley, a mother of two from the West Midlands, recalled: "As we were leaving Beirut three nights ago to go into the hills a bomb went off and smashed our car. When we were still at the house there were bombs near by and the children were really frightened."

Jessie Thomas, a 19 year old student studying Arabic at the American University in Beirut, shook her head. "Now I know what the smell and taste of a bomb is like." Another student, Angela Quartermaine, 23, added " The Lebanese are used to this kind of violence. We are not. It's all very surreal and I feel we're in the middle of a movie."

Evacuees will be taken to Cyprus, where the Army's spearhead unit, 2nd Battalion the Light Infantry, is being sent to set up camps. About 90 Britons stranded in southern Lebanon are unable to leave because Israeli planes are targeting anything that moves on the road. Selima Hassan's parents, in their sixties, are among those too frightened to attempt a journey to Beirut, from where they can be evacuated. "They went to visit relations and now find themselves in this terrible situation, Ms Hassan, 27, said from south London. "I spoke to them on the telephone and they were very nervous."

The US has sent a cruise ship, Orient Queen, capable of taking 750 passengers. It will be escorted by the assault ships USS Iwo Jima, Nashville and Whidbey Island. US Marines will play a part in "extracting" 1,000 citizens a day, the Pentagon said.

A Swedish chartered ship, the Hual Transporter, has been moving out Scandinavian citizens. Tara Olsson, a 19-year-old Swede who had been studying Arabic, said: "I am extremely sad for Lebanon and for all my new friends here. I did not want to leave, but when I heard that foreign embassies were organising evacuations I got worried."

But Leila Issa, a 45 year old Swedish citizen of Lebanese descent, said she was very glad to leave. " I have learned my lesson, this country is hopeless."

A senior Israeli army officer said last night that co-ordination with Western countries over the evacuation was "working well". He said that military attachés from the countries involved had provided Israel with the call signs of the vessels involved, expected times of arrival and docking periods. He claimed the road from Beirut through Tripoli to Syria had been open for the evacuation of foreigners since the beginning of the operation; and he said that after two ships evacuated foreigners on Monday and seven yesterday, Israel expected some 20 ships to evacuate foreigners today. He expected the operation to continue "for some days".

The officer said Israel had "taken a risk" because there was a possibility that Hizbollah could use a lull in the offensive to try to smuggle out the two soldiers captured on the border a week ago, possibly to Iran. But he said: "Because of the humanitarian considerations and because of the requests from the Western countries we have agreed to do this. There are a lot of people who want to leave Lebanon."

He said there was also a risk that militants could take advantage of the evacuation period at the port to try to smuggle in weapons.