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Evacuation from Lebanon goes slowly for Swiss

Beirut has been hit hard by Israeli strikes that have caused massive damage

(Keystone)

Switzerland has managed to evacuate 15 of its citizens from Lebanon, six of them onboard a Greek ferry and the rest by road to the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The Swiss foreign ministry also confirmed that the Lebanese prime minister has asked Switzerland to step up diplomatic efforts to stop the fighting between Israeli forces and Islamic Hezbollah militants.

Around 400 Swiss nationals are still trying to leave, and the foreign ministry said it hoped to get more people out of Beirut on Wednesday, although it refused to give any details.

The ministry is erring on the side of caution after a planned evacuation on board the French-chartered ferry was cut short. More than 40 Swiss citizens were supposed to make the trip to Larnaca, but the ship was forced to leave early after the Israeli forces warned they could not guarantee its security after nightfall.

About 900 passengers, including around 750 French, were finally evacuated according to French officials. Three hundred other people were left behind to wait for another opportunity.

Swiss embassy staff took care of 42 citizens unable to get on the ferry. People were either put up in hotels or taken to the embassy.

The six citizens who reached Cyprus were to fly home on Tuesday evening. The nine other Swiss who arrived in Damascus were part a convoy organised with Austria.

Thousands of foreign nationals are waiting to be evacuated from Lebanon, but the situation has slowed the pace of departures.

More departures

More Swiss evacuations are expected on Wednesday. The people who failed to board the ferry on Monday should be able to leave Beirut when it returns.

However, departure lists are being modified depending on needs. Adel Hamdane, a dual Swiss-Lebanese national told the Swiss News Agency that his family's departure might be delayed until Friday.

"Unaccompanied children, the sick and the injured have priority," he said. "Passenger lists are being changed depending on who needs to go first."

Foreign ministry spokesman Jean-Philippe Jeannerat said that Switzerland wasn't being ignored by other nations as it tried to evacuate its citizens, adding that the situation made organising departures extremely difficult.

The ministry has confirmed that more evacuations would take place, either by sea or by road, without giving further details. A ship has also been chartered and could reach Beirut by Friday if needed.

Particular efforts are being undertaken to evacuate around 50 Swiss citizens trapped in southern Lebanon, where the Hezbollah militants – Israel's real targets – are firing rockets at the port of Haifa and other areas of northern Israel.

A coordinated operation with other countries and the United Nations should hopefully allow these nationals to leave the area.

Humanitarian corridor

Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey spoke with the Lebanese premier, Fouad Siniora, on Tuesday. The prime minister informed her of the humanitarian situation in Lebanon.

According to the foreign ministry, he told Calmy-Rey that he wanted a humanitarian corridor to be opened between Cyprus and Lebanon. He also asked the Swiss to push for an immediate ceasefire.

The foreign minister said that Switzerland was giving the Lebanese its support at a "difficult time." Five more ministry specialists will arrive in Beirut on Wednesday to back up embassy staff.

The specialists include humanitarian aid experts, who will work with the Lebanese prime minister's office to evaluate needs and plan for emergency aid.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

The fighting - the worst since Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1982 – was triggered after Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid last week.

The Islamic militant movement is part of the Lebanese government and is backed by Syria and Iran.

So far more than 200 people in Lebanon – most civilians – have been killed, and much of the country's infrastructure destroyed, including Beirut airport and the motorway to Damascus.

Twenty-four Israelis have died, including 12 civilians hit by Hezbollah rocket attacks.

Some 500,000 people have been displaced by the violence, according to the UN's most recent estimations.

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Key facts

The Swiss foreign ministry says there are 838 Swiss nationals registered as resident in Lebanon, of which 713 hold dual nationality.
The number of tourists is not clear, but could amount to "several hundred".
Family members can contact the foreign ministry for further information on +41 31 324 98 08.

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