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Lebanon evacuees arrive in Switzerland

The first Swiss evacuees from Lebanon arrived back on Thursday

(Keystone)

Around 340 Swiss nationals evacuated from Lebanon have arrived in Zurich in the past 24 hours on board three charter flights from Cyprus.

The operation came as countries continued efforts to pull out thousands of foreign nationals fleeing intense fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants.

Two aircraft landed late Sunday evening with 188 passengers, while the third plane arrived early Monday morning carrying another 156 Swiss. Representatives of the foreign ministry were on hand to meet them in Zurich.

"There is a lot nervous and physical fatigue among the evacuees," said ministry spokesman Jean-Philippe Jeannerat. No one was apparently injured during the evacuation.

The 333 Swiss arrived in the Cypriot port of Larnaca in the early hours of Sunday morning, after being ferried by ship from Beirut.

Over the past week the Swiss authorities have managed to evacuate about 850 nationals by road and by sea. But around 45 remain trapped in the south of the country.

Fabienne Wiedler of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit said the group included around 40 babies and four pregnant women. Consular and medical staff were also on board the vessel, as were 20 Swedish and four German nationals.

Jeannerat said on Sunday that he believed most Swiss nationals in Lebanon who wanted to leave were now out of the country.

In all around 25,000 people have been evacuated from Lebanon since Israel started bombing the country on July 12, after Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

The European Union is to dispatch a team to help Cyprus cope with the huge wave of foreign evacuees, which is stretching the island's resources.

Humanitarian corridor

As part of an effort to avert a humanitarian crisis, Israel eased its blockade of Lebanon's ports on Saturday to allow the first shiploads of food, medicine and other supplies to arrive.

The move came a day after United Nations humanitarian chief Jan Egeland called on Israel to guarantee safe passage for humanitarian goods into the country. Switzerland has been pushing for similar action.

The UN estimates that at least 700,000 people have been displaced by Israeli attacks against the south, southern Beirut and the eastern Bekaa Valley, Shiite areas where Hezbollah has strong support.

A team of experts from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation is heading to Lebanon to help coordinate international aid and support the Lebanese authorities.

The head of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit, Tony Frisch, is also due to visit the country to report on the refugee situation, as well as security and access to victims.

The Lebanese authorities have asked for Swiss assistance in housing refugees. Swiss aid workers have already delivered an 800kg medical kit and a further SFr200,000 ($162,000) has been allocated for the purchase of medicines.

Diplomatic mission

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due in Israel on Monday to discuss with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert how best to end the fighting.

Ahead of the trip, Rice said she would strive for "stability and lasting peace" instead of the immediate ceasefire demanded by much of the international community.

On Friday the Swiss ambassador to the UN in New York urged the Security Council to act to end the conflict by establishing a ceasefire. Peter Maurer said it was "absolutely necessary, given the serious and steadily deteriorating humanitarian situation in Lebanon".

He also repeated Swiss calls for both sides in the conflict to respect international humanitarian law as laid down by the Geneva Conventions, of which Switzerland is the depositary state.

Incursion

The Israeli military said troops crossed into Lebanon at daybreak on Monday, but Lebanese officials could not immediately confirm such an incursion.

Troops took control of the area surrounding the town of Bint Jbail, a Hezbollah stronghold, early Monday after a heavy artillery barrage in the area. However, the army had not yet taken the town, a major centre in the region, military officials said.

Hezbollah rockets fired into northern Israel on Sunday badly damaged a house in the Haifa area. Israeli police said at least two people died and a dozen were wounded.

Seventeen Israelis have now been killed by rockets over the past two weeks, while 20 soldiers have died in the fighting in Lebanon.

Israeli warplanes bombed targets in Beirut and east and south Lebanon on Sunday, killing at least three civilians. The Lebanese authorities say at least 375 people, mainly civilians, have died.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz warned that the 12-day offensive would continue as Israel tried to push Hezbollah guerrillas away from the border.

But he said Israel was now ready to support the deployment of a Nato-led peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.

The UN's humanitarian chief, who arrived in Lebanon on Sunday, called for an end to the violence as he inspected the destruction wrought by Israeli air raids on south Beirut. Jan Egeland said the bombing of civilian targets was "a violation of humanitarian law".

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

More than 1,000 people marched through the streets of Geneva on Saturday to protest against the conflict in the Middle East.

They called on the international community to intervene immediately to halt Israeli attacks on Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

At least 800 people staged a similar demonstration outside the Swiss parliament in Bern on Friday.

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Key facts

838 Swiss nationals were registered as living in Lebanon before hostilities broke out, of which 713 hold dual nationality.
Family members can contact the foreign ministry hotline for further information on +41 31 325 33 33 from 8am to 9pm.
Swiss in Lebanon can contact the embassy in Beirut on 01 324 129 (only for Swiss in Lebanon).

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Swiss aid

Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey told the SonntagsBlick newspaper that the government was examining whether Switzerland could join an international peacekeeping force in the Middle East.

She said there were no legal constraints preventing the participation of Swiss troops in a UN-led mission in Lebanon.

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