Aust govt leadership row

Just this morning, Mr Howard denied cutting a deal in 1994 to hand the leadership to Mr Costello.

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But this afternoon Mr Costello emerged, in a brief press conference, to confirm former defence minister Ian McLachlan’s account of a meeting 12 years ago, in which allegedly Mr Howard offered to hand over the leadership midway through a second term of government.

Mr Costello said Mr Howard made the offer spontaneously during a meeting on December 5, 1994, when the Liberals were in opposition. “He told me that he intended to do one-and-a-half terms as prime minister and then would hand over,” Mr Costello told reporters in Melbourne.

“I did not seek that undertaking, he volunteered it and I took him at his word. Obviously that did not happen.”

Mr Costello said during the meeting, which was witnessed by Mr McLachlan, Mr Howard had asked him not to stand for the Liberal Party leadership “because he did not want a vote in the party room”.

Mr McLachlan, who took notes of the meeting, had said that Mr Howard told Mr Costello he only wanted to be prime minister for two terms before standing aside for his treasurer. He says the deal was struck amid manoeuvring to replace then-Liberal leader, and current foreign affairs minister, Alexander Downer.

Two years later and with Mr Howard in the top job, the coalition won the election and took government.

‘Entirely accurate’

Mr Costello also said he had not encouraged Mr McLachlan to make any revelations about the 1994 meeting. “But his account is entirely accurate,” he said.

“That was precisely what happened. They are the full facts of what happened. “I have a very clear recollection of the events. You can interpret them as you like but that is the full truth of what happened.”

But when asked by a journalist, Mr Costello stopped short of calling Mr Howard a liar, saying, “Look, I’m telling you what happened. I’m not making any allegations against anybody, I’m telling you what happened and, look, you can interpret whatever you like.”

The prime minister has clearly denied ever striking such a deal, telling reporters earlier “There was no deal made.”

No contradiction

But he has replied to this development, through a spokesman, saying there is no contradiction between the statements, but Mr Howard did not dispute Mr Costello’s claim.

“Nothing said by Mr Costello today has in any way altered the position that no deal was made about a leadership transition,” Mr Howard’s spokesman said.

“This is the position that Mr Costello and I have always maintained.”

1000 jobs go at Coles

But the company says plans to employ 1,600 workers for new distribution centres, at different sites, means that there will be no overall net loss of jobs.

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Coles Myer informed the 440 staff at the Somersby distribution centre on the NSW Central Coast and about 580 workers at Hampton Park, in Melbourne’s south-east, that the centres would close.

Although Coles has pledged to pay out all staff entitlements, severance pay and edeployment services, the National Union of Workers (NUW) says the closures are a traumatic blow to the communities.

“It’s a lot of long-term workers, most of them are family people … it’s a really traumatic thing for the locals,” union spokesman Mark Ptolemy said.

‘Devastating’

Mark Launt, who has worked at the Somersby centre for 12 years, said the closure was devastating, “Seventy per cent of us are families with kids and mortgages … people are devastated, you can just see the look of loss on their faces.”

Coles Myer says six of the new distribution centres, announced in 2003, are under construction and that through these new centres 1,600 people will be employed.

“Overall in our supply chain transformation program we anticipate no net loss of jobs,” Coles Myer spokesman Scott Whiffen said.

Mr Whiffen said the company will help the workers affected, “We have made the decision to close these centres now to minimise uncertainty for our people and allow us to get new arrangements in place before the peak retail trading period.”

The centres will be shut over the next four to six weeks.

Aust leadership row unresolved

The two men appeared at a party cabinet meeting for the first time since the quarrel began, and then Mr Howard says they spoke privately for about half an hour.

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Mr Howard told reporters after the meeting, that during their discussion Mr Costello did not specially ask him to stand aside immediately or before Christmas.

Mr Howard says he does not believe their professional relationship has broken down and as far as he’s concerned its business as usual.

“It is the overwhelming desire of the parliamentary Liberal Party … that Mr Costello and I in our current positions continue to work for the benefit of the Australian people and for the benefit of the Liberal Party,” he told a packed press conference this afternoon.

Mr Howard said that obviously Mr Costello would like to see a favourable leadership change before the next election, but he declined to comment when asked if he would run for election again saying only “I haven’t called the news conference to talk about my medium- to long-term future.”

No resentment

Mr Howard said he harboured no resentment towards Mr Costello for his leadership ambitions, “There is no personal venom that’s ever been part of our relationship.”

He admits that the public quarrel may hurt his party in the short term, “We’ve had bad days before. I think the public makes a judgment over a longer period than two days.”

Mr Howard said he was confident his working relationship with Mr Costello would be restored. “We have been a very strong team. We’ve, obviously, had a bad few days.

Mr Howard also refused to comment when asked if Mr Costello’s recent behaviour had hurt his chances of becoming party leader, but did say he still believed that if he was to fall under a bus, Mr Costello was the person most likely to succeed him as prime minister.

Adding quickly, “I am still very careful about crossing the road.”

Silent Costello

Mr Howard again insisted there was no leadership deal with Mr Costello.

A smiling Mr Costello emerged from the federal cabinet meeting in Sydney refusing to say anything more about the leadership to the pack of reporters waiting outside.

Mr Costello had little more to say when he touched down at Melbourne Airport.

A confident treasurer was met by a small posse of waiting journalists, but did not reveal the contents of the conversation he had with Mr Howard.

“I had a full-on press conference this morning, I answered all the questions that the press had and what I said was entirely accurate about what has happened in relation to these matters,” he said.

Mr Costello also dodged questions about his future.

Costello practices patience

Following a half-hour meeting with Mr Howard yesterday to discuss the Liberal Party leadership, and the treasurer’s ambition to possess it, Mr Costello has ruled out giving up his portfolio and moving to the backbench, saying he’s committed to public life for the long term.

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But he’s refused to commit himself to standing as treasurer again, if the coalition wins the next election.

Mr Costello also says he Mr Howard that he believes the Liberal Party would be best served by a smooth transition.

But when asked if he was suggesting he would take no action to secure the leadership, Mr Costello only said that he was committed to Australia’s long term future. “And I want to give leadership in this country on the issues that will concern us in the 21st century.”

No reprimand

Mr Costello said Mr Howard did not reprimand him for confirming to the media secret talks held 12 years ago which allegedly contained a leadership deal between the two men.

He also brushed off the prime minister’s suggestion that he was guilty of “hubris and arrogance” saying, “You get called a lot of things in politics so I don’t let that worry me in the slightest.”

But the public spat may have damaged Mr Costello’s support in the party room, though he’s denied his actions were an attempt to undermine its choice in picking a successor to Mr Howard.

“This suggestion that somehow I don’t value the partyroom, no-one values the partyroom more than me. I’ve stood for election in the partyroom in 1993, in 1994, 1998, 2001, 2004. I absolutely value the partyroom.”

Speculation and mischief

Liberal backbencher Warren Entsch says Mr Costello has now damaged the government and himself, but he also says the prime minister’s failure to declare his intentions over the top job is fuelling speculation and mischief.

Capitalising on leadership problem in another party, federal Labor leader Kim Beazley has accused Mr Costello of orchestrating the leak about the meeting, so that the treasurer could put the issue on the agenda.

Mr Beazley has again called on Mr Howard to reveal whether or not he will run in the next election, telling Southern Cross Radio, the leadership crisis is keeping from their proper jobs, “They’re not concentrating on things which really matter to ordinary Australians while they’re fighting each other… There’s an awful lot that’s just not being done while Howard makes up his mind whether or not he wants to keep on being prime minister.”

Mr Beazley called the current crisis a sign of dangerous instability within the Howard government. When asked who he would like to go head to head against in the next election, he told reporters he wanted John Howard.

“What we need from Howard now is that at least he is prepared to take responsibility for the product of his deception, and that means he contests the next election, holds himself accountable.”

Banana drought nearing end

The shortage, caused when Cyclone Larry wiped out 80 per cent of Australia’s banana crop, has sent prices soaring to record highs.

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In the last few months, bananas have averaged A$12 to $15 a kilogram nationally, before the cyclone prices the favourite fruit rarely topped $3 a kilo.

But relief for consumers is in sight, the Australian Banana Growers Council says the shortage has bottomed out and prices are unlikely to go any higher. “I wouldn’t expect the quantities to go any lower,” council chief executive Tony Heidrich said.

“We should start to see some reasonable quantities flowing back onto the market in mid-September, and it should be back to normal by mid to late December. Prices should be back to pre-cyclone levels by then.” Mr Heidrich added.

Since the Cyclone Larry destroyed so many crops in north Queensland, the country’s biggest banana growing region, consumers have received most of their bananas from the sub-tropical zones of southern Queensland and northern New South Wales.

Australia’s other two growing regions – the Northern Territory and Carnarvon in Western Australia – produce only a small amount of fruit.

The Banana Growers Council has encouraged north Queenslanders getting back into the industry to stagger their production so that the supply drought doesn’t turn into a glut and drive down prices.

“If everybody brings their crop in at the same time then we’ll also have another shortage in the middle of next year,” Mr Heidrich said.

Mr Heidrich said many growers had learned from the oversupply after crops were devastated by Cyclone Winifred in 1986, when a flood of fruit drove prices below the cost of production.

“More people went broke as a result of the glut 12 months after Cyclone Winifred than actually went broke during the cyclone,” he said.

Aust to get new nuke reactor

Environmental groups have condemned the decision to grant the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) an operating licence for the A$330 million research reactor.

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The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) gave the green light to ANSTO to operate the Open Pool Australian Light-water (OPAL) research reactor at Lucas Heights, in Sydney’s south.

ARPANSA has imposed strict conditions on ANSTO’s licence, including the need to provide regular safety and security reviews.

The head of Australia’s nuclear watchdog John Loy said the licence was subject to conditions already laid out in existing legislation, but he also has imposed some extra conditions on ANSTO to provide periodic safety and security reviews.

The safety reviews will have to be carried out every 10 years.

“It is inevitable that in the first two years of operation much will be learned about operating the reactor and it is important that this experience is fully incorporated into ongoing safety management,” Dr Loy said in a statement.

“Similarly the operation of the arrangements for physical security should be reviewed at this time.”

Dr Loy said there had been a range of concerns about the reactor raised by the public, including worries about the disposal of spent reactor fuel and other radioactive waste.

However he said he was satisfied with ANSTO’s arrangements with the US and France, which have agreed to take waste from theSydney reactor.

He also said he had taken into account the federal government’s commitment to building a waste management facility in the Northern Territory.

Decision angers environmentalists

But green groups and local residents say the safety and environmental risks associated with the new reactor are too high and it should not be allowed to operate.

Australian Conservation Foundation nuclear campaigner Dave

Sweeney said it was irresponsible for the facility to start operating amid a battle over the federal government’s plan to build a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory.

“We believe for the federal regulator to licence the operation of what will be by far the largest generator of radioactive waste in Australia before there’s an agreed management of that waste, is a deeply flawed decision,” he said.

There are also concerns about giving the go-ahead to the new reactor just a month after four accidents occurred in one week at the existing Lucas Heights nuclear reactor.

“That should have been a wake up call about how quickly things can go wrong with nuclear reactors,” Greenpeace campaigns manager

Danny Kennedy said.

“Unfortunately, decision makers don’t seem to be listening. It’s extremely reckless to introduce a nuclear reactor into a major growth corridor of our largest city.”

Local residents upset

ANSTO says the new reactor meets the highest possible standards imposed upon the nuclear industry.

“Not only will OPAL increase ANSTO’s capacity to supply Australia and the region with critically important radiopharmaceuticals, it will provide world leading capability for our scientists to apply nuclear research to such areas as biotechnology, food and molecular biology, nanotechnology, health, environmental management processes and engineering,” ANSTO executive director Ian Smith.

“This research will result in tangible social and economic benefits for Australia,” Mr Smith said.

However local residents have accused the nuclear watchdog of ignoring the concerns they outlined in 11,000 submissions opposing the new reactor.

People Against a Nuclear Reactor (PANR) spokeswoman Genevieve Kelly said residents were worried that there was no adequate emergency plan in place in the event of a major accident or terrorist attack.

She said residents’ fears were compounded by the fact there had been no independent assessment of whether the new reactor should be allowed to operate.

“It is like having Dracula in charge of the blood bank,” she said. “No one with any independence is appointed to protect the public in these matters. The federal government regulates itself.”

COAG agrees to national reform

In other developments, Victoria, NSW, the ACT and Tasmania have agreed to look at synchronising the start of daylight saving each year.

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Mr Howard said all governments agreed to support a bid, if there was one, for Australia to host the 2018 soccer World Cup.

The issues surrounding a compensation fund set up to allow James Hardie to pay victims of asbestos-related diseases would continue to be discussed, he said.

But the prime minister said the Commonwealth’s position – of opposing tax deductibility for the fund – was still in place.

“This has been another very constructive COAG meeting at which an enormous amount has been achieved in a spirit of cooperation and a desire to get practical results for the Australian people,” Mr Howard said.

“The major outcome has been agreement on a huge, indeed mammoth, national reform agenda which will cover the important areas of human capital, as well as issues of regulation, red tape, other matters touching on infrastructure.

“It will particularly deal with early childhood issues.”

Victorian Premier Steve Bracks said COAG welcomed agreement on the reform agenda but said the meeting had failed to move forward on stem cell research.

Mr Bracks had urged the federal government to reconsider plans to continue a ban on human embryo research, saying prohibiting therapeutic cloning was hampering the hunt for cures to serious diseases and holding back researchers.

He said Victoria reserved the right to consider its position in moving on the next wave of reform in stem cell research.

Mr Howard appeared to back away from earlier threats made by the commonwealth that states that go it alone on human embryo and stem cell research may be financially penalised by Canberra.

Meanwhile Labor leaders have used the COAG meeting to taunt Treasurer Peter Costello over the Liberal leadership, saying they would rather work with John Howard as prime minister.

Premiers and chief ministers also criticised Mr Costello’s suggestion that economic powers be transferred from the states to the commonwealth.

Kovco room cleaned before test

Details of the investigation of the Baghdad barracks where Pte Kovco was shot in the head emerged today when military police investigators appeared before the board of inquiry (BOI) being held at Army Land Headquarters in Sydney.

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Military investigators and New South Wales Police forensic experts were called in to examine the room, which Pte Kovco shared with two other soldiers, after the shooting on April 21 this year.

But one of the military investigators, Sergeant Stephen Hession, told the inquiry that shortly after he finished examining the room, already days after the shooting, cleaners were brought in.

As part of his investigation, Sgt Hession took photos and video footage of the room and bagged up various items, including Pte Kovco’s 9mm Browning pistol, with which he is believed to have been shot.

He then handed over control of the room – which had the pistol, a rifle and other items belonging to Pte Kovco and his roommates – to a platoon commander.

While New South Wales Police were on their way to Baghdad to examine the room, it was being cleaned.

Sgt Hession said he didn’t know when he handed over control of the room that police wanted to examine it, and when he found out moves were made to stop the cleaning.

“Unfortunately, that was two to three hours after the room had been handed over to them (platoon commander) and cleaning had commenced,” he said.

“I was under the direction of my captain … at no stage did he suggest to me that NSW (police) was going to be involved.”

No tests on clothes

The inquiry also heard, from Sgt Hession, that no tests were carried out on the clothes Pte Kovco wore on the day he was shot because they were destroyed at the US military hospital in Baghdad where he was treated.

Clothes and equipment belonging to Pte Kovco’s two roommates also weren’t tested, despite the men being in the room when the gun went discharged.

“Unfortunately … both soldiers had been allowed to wash their clothes and themselves and their bodies,” Sgt Hession said.

Sergeant Hession decided not to carry out any gunshot residue or DNA tests on anything in Pte Kovco’s room, including what he believed was blood stains on the carpet. He also told the inquiry that he might have moved Pte Kovco’s gun while he was examining the room and that up to five other soldiers could have been allowed inside before his examination began.

Documents and a soft toy were also removed from the room before Sgt Hession got to the scene.

Coaching denied

Sergeant Hession also denied coaching Pte Kovco’s colleagues about what to say in their official statements, which were taken approximately nine days after the shooting.

He said while there was “a considerable amount of templating” in the statements, most of the similar comments related to the soldiers’ training and not the shooting.

The inquiry continues.

Hundreds evacuate Lebanon

On Monday night, 86 Australians were bused to Syria then onto Jordan and the Federal Government is hopes to evacuate more by bus on Tuesday.

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Mr Howard estimated that 4,000 Australians had registered with the embassy in Beirut and said the government is doing everything it can to help Australians wanting to get out.

“The fighting is getting heavier, it’s more dangerous the alternative exit routes and I ask people to bear with us in a situation that is very traumatic for them but extremely challenging,” Mr Howard said.

The Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says he hopes more bus loads can leave

Lebanon and another 600 people could be ferried to Cyprus by a chartered ship later this week.

One of the Australians evacuated from Lebanon says it was a long and hard journey to safety.

Levon Demirian, from the Armenian Sydney dance troupe stranded in Beirut, said it took 17 hours to get to Amman.

“It was very tiring especially for the young ones and the old ones that we have but for the freedom’s sake we were actually happy for it,” Mr Demirian told ABC radio.

Mr Downer could not confirm reports of any Australians being killed in Lebanon.

An Australian man who fled the bloodshed told the ABC last night he believes Australians have died in clashes near the southern Lebanese town of Aitaroun.

But Mr Downer told the Nine Network his department has been unable to confirm the report.

Foreigners flee

In the first mass evacuation by sea to neighbouring Cyprus, an Italian vessel carrying more than 300 people docked in the port of Larnaca.

The Italian destroyer carrying is the first of a growing flotilla of vessels sent by foreign governments to evacuate worried nationals.

Many of those aboard the vessel were children, one of them an infant only a few days old, Italian diplomats said.

According to the BBC, Britain dispatched two warships in preparation for a possible larger-scale evacuation. The British Foreign Office estimates there are about 10,000 Britons in Lebanon.

The British Foreign Office minister Kim Howells told parliament that the Royal Navy could be faced with “the biggest evacuation since Dunkirk”, to evacuate stranded British citizens from Lebanon.

Dunkirk involved some 330,000 soldiers being evacuated by sea from France in 1940.

The country has already evacuated about 40 citizens out of Beirut by helicopter on Sunday night.

The United States meanwhile was preparing to help potentially thousands of nationals flee.

Harrowing stories

Evacuees arriving in Cyprus have told of their experiences in Lebanon amid the Israeli air raids.

“There were a lot of bombs and we were very scared,” said 14-year-old Italian national Tamora Hassoun.

“We had to sleep in the embassy before we could get out of Lebanon,” she said. “It was scary but I feel safe now.”

Chady Chatila, 36, also Italian, said she felt “very tired” after travelling for more than 30 hours.

“We could see the bombs and we could see the smoke rising from the Italian embassy,” she said. “The bombs were getting closer, the children were crying and I thought we would never get out.”

Officials have reported some 186 of the evacuees aboard the Italian destroyer Luigi Durand de la Penne were Italian, but they also included 58 Lebanese and 49 Swedes.

Also aboard were 16 Canadians, six Greeks, five Egyptians, five South Africans, three Argentines, two Americans, two Filipinos, two French, one Ghanaian, one Nepali, one Russian, one Swiss and one Ukrainian.

Foreign governments have been scrambling to evacuate nationals from Lebanon since Israeli warplanes bombed Beirut international airport and the main highway to Syria on Thursday, largely cutting off the country from the outside world.

Lebanon evacuations gain pace

Thousands of foreign passport holders waited to flee by sea to the Cyprus port of Larnaca as Israel agreed to arrangements with several Western governments for a major sea evacuation.

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A senior army commander said 20 boats are going to be able to leave Lebanon on Wednesday.

Overnight some 800 evacuees arrived at Larnaca on board a Greek ferry chartered by the French government. The Iera Patra was awaiting authorisation to make a return trip, as the evacuees were flown on to Paris.

France also announced that it is sending a navy support ship the Mistral, capable of taking on board 4,000 evacuees, in addition to two other vessels expected to arrive off Beirut Wednesday or Thursday.

A British warship carrying evacuees left Beirut for Cyprus on Tuesday in the first stage of the large-scale rescue of an expected 5,000 British nationals in the coming days.

The destroyer HMS Gloucester took 180 priority evacuees towards the safety of British military bases on Cyprus.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is hopeful that British forces would be able to evacuate 5,000 nationals by the end of the week.

“We are going for far bigger numbers tomorrow,” James Watt, Britain’s ambassador to Lebanon, said on the Beirut dockside in comments broadcast live on BBC television.

The United States meanwhile has announced the dispatch of a navy flotilla to help in the evacuation process.

Fears for trapped Australians

A ferry chartered by the Australian government is due to arrive in Lebanon Wednesday to evacuate 300 Australians to Turkey, while another 100 are set to be shipped out on a Canadian vessel.

But Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said an increasing number of foreign vessels in the port at Beirut was creating its own set of problems.

“To add to the problems, the port is now starting to get quite congested in Beirut, so the logistics of managing that for everybody are not going to be very easy,” he told ABC radio.

Meanwhile fears are held for the safety of hundreds of Australian families in southern Lebanon, which is bearing the brunt of Israeli attacks.

Authorities say they have no safe way of getting in to help these Australians without a ceasefire, which Israel has refused.

“We’ve been in contact with quite a few of them, of course many of them haven’t been able to get through, they are facing shortages of food and water,” Australia’s ambassador to Lebanon, Lyndall Sachs, told ABC radio.

She said only a ceasefire would allow safe evacuations, saying the bombardment of southern Lebanon put the Australians at huge risk.

“Worst case scenario is that we will have Australians killed or injured,” she said.

Nearly 200 Australians have already made their way out of Lebanon by bus in the past two days, escaping to Syria and then Jordan.

However, thousands more are waiting to escape, and some claim Australia is not doing enough to keep its citizens informed.

More than 7,000 Australians are registered with the embassy in Lebanon. There are also an estimated 25,000 dual nationals in the country, some of whom are registered with the embassy.

The government is fending off claims it is not doing enough to help its nationals, or sufficiently reassuring them they will be rescued.

Rebecca Akar, who had been holidaying in Beirut, said Australian consular officials in Lebanon had given only scant details of the evacuation plan.

“The sky’s covered in black smoke and we’re just waiting, really, to find out when we can evacuate,” she told ABC radio.

Air and road

Thousands of foreign nationals were also continuing to escape by car and bus over land to Damascus, despite warnings that the road has been targeted several times by Israeli warplanes.

The United States flew 120 citizens out of Beirut on Tuesday as scores more Americans criticised their government’s slow response to their ordeal under Israeli bombardment.

The first flight carrying about 450 French nationals, who evacuated Lebanon for Cyprus, arrived at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport late Tuesday.

Also later that day, a Belgian army plane arrived in Brussels from Cyprus with 136 people including 45 children who fled Lebanon by ferry. All were Europeans except for about two dozen Americans.

Call for ceasefire

Sam Ajram, an electrician from Marseille who was in Lebanon on holiday with his wife and two children, said there should be a partial ceasefire to enable people to travel to Beirut for the evacuation.

“A partial ceasefire needs to be negotiated so people in the south or in the Bekaa (region) can reach Beirut,” Mr Ajram said.

He went on to explain that he had friends in Bekaa “who are cut off from the world.”

The US State Department estimates some 25,000 US nationals in Lebanon; France says it has 20,000 and Britain 22,000. Many of these have dual nationality, and it was not clear how many want to leave.

Other countries with large numbers of nationals in Lebanon include Canada, which has 40,000, Australia with 25,000, and the Philippines, which has 30,000 workers there.

UN withdrawal

The United Nations has announced the evacuation of several hundred non-essential staff from Lebanon because of the ongoing violence.

It says 445 UN personnel have been evacuated following Tuesday’s departure of a first batch of UN dependents and visitors from Beirut.

The world body says some 130 staff and their dependents remain in Lebanon in a safe area and may be relocated or evacuated.