MacKay defends Canada's evacuation plans

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay says the government is moving quickly to transport up to 50,000 Canadians from Lebanon.

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay insisted the government is moving quickly totransport up to 50,000 Canadians from Lebanon, even though the first evacuee won't leave until Wednesday —at the earliest — and other countries have already taken people out.

"We have shown a great deal of movement," with six ships ready to carry Canadians from the destruction in Lebanon to Cyprus, he told The National's Peter Mansbridge on Monday.

Canada has many more people in Lebanon than other countries which have removed people, he said, and European countries like France are much closer to the scene.

France evacuated 1,000 people on Monday.

"We've been focusing on getting a large transportation system in place to allow for the removal of mass numbers. We're talking thousands of people here," MacKay said as Mansbridge pressed him about the government's plans.

Canadians in Lebanon, where Israel has launched many attacks in response to the abduction of two Israeli soldiers last week, and their relatives have complained about the apparent slowness of the Canadian reaction.

But MacKay said more officials are working on the plan, the embassy in Lebanon where 25,000 Canadians have registered is working around the clock, and the logistics are being put in place.

"I'm very proud of the efficiency, the professionalism and the quickness with which [Canadian officials] have been able to spring to action," he said.

Six ships to carry 4,500 a day

Foreign Affairs started looking for ships last Friday, just two days after the militant group Hezbollah abducted the two Israeli soldiers, and found three vessels by Sunday and six in totalby Monday, MacKay said.

The ships, likely cruise ships and ferries of different sizes, will be able to transport approximately 4,500 peoplea day.

After they drop off their passengers in Cyprus, three airliners will fly Canadians home from the island, which is about 200 kilometres off Lebanon's west coast, Foreign Affairs announced Monday.

The evacuations will only proceed if the vessels are allowed safe and secure passage.

Israel has offeredto get Canadians out of Lebanon, but transportation within the country is very difficult because of the bombing.

The evacuations most likely would take place from the capital,Beirut, since it has not been heavily damaged, said Foreign Affairs.

Ottawa said it has been in touch with the Red Crescent to arrange safe passage for Canadians inside Lebanon.

Foreign nationals from other countries are also scrambling to leave Lebanon.

  • The United States is sending a commercial ship, two naval destroyers and at least threehelicopters to take citizens to a British air base on Cyprus as early as Tuesday.
  • An Italian ship carrying 400 evacuees was expected to arrive in Cyprus Monday evening.
  • Greece has sent a navy frigate and placed three warships on standby.
  • France has chartered a Greek ferry to pick up its citizens.
  • Sweden has chartered three ships to provide passage to Cyprus.
  • Britain is sending an aircraft carrier and warships for its citizens. The initial group of elderly, sick and children left on Sunday.
  • Denmark and Poland have sent buses to transport their citizens to Damascus.