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Swiss step up evacuations from Lebanon

Swiss nationals board the "Fast Arrow" in Beirut on Saturday

(Keystone)

Around 340 Swiss nationals have arrived in Cyprus after leaving the Lebanese capital Beirut on Saturday on board a government-chartered cargo ship.

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

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.

Those picked up by boat on Saturday arrived in the Cypriot port of Larnaca in the early hours of Sunday morning. They are due to be flown to Zurich on Sunday evening.

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 dozens of other foreign nationals.

A spokesman for the Swiss foreign ministry said on Sunday that he believed most of the Swiss in Lebanon who wanted to leave were now out of the country.

In all around 25,000 people have been evacuated from Lebanon since hostilities broke out 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.

The Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit said on Saturday that it had been asked by the Lebanese authorities to assist in housing refugees.

On Friday the Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched a preliminary appeal for SFr1.3 million ($1 million) to support assistance programmes for people fleeing hostilities in Lebanon.

The same day the first convoy of relief lorries from the Swiss-run International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reached the besieged southern Lebanese city of Tyre. Its 24 metric tons of food and other emergency items are being distributed to 4,000 civilians in and around the city.

Diplomatic mission

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due in the region on Sunday to discuss with Middle East leaders 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.

Ground offensive

An 11th day of fighting saw hundreds of Israeli troops backed by tanks move in and out of southern Lebanon as part of a limited ground campaign.

Israeli jets also hit a transmission station in north Lebanon on Saturday used to relay television and mobile telephone signals, military sources said.

More than 40 rockets fired by Hezbollah hit towns across northern Israel, injuring more than a dozen people.

The Lebanese health ministry on Saturday reported 362 deaths in Lebanon so far in the conflict. At least 34 Israelis have been killed, including 19 soldiers.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

At least 500 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 the start of the conflict, 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 evacuees).

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