Evacuations set to start

Hundreds have gathered in the uncomfortable and hot conditions, waiting to catch a chartered ferry to Cyprus or Turkey.

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It’s hoped that between 500 and 1,000 people will be shipped out later today, with the total rising up to 6,500 by Sunday.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has advised Australians unable to get out of Lebanon today to return and try tomorrow.

Extra defence and diplomatic staff have been sent to Beirut, with 65 defence logistics and medical personnel leaving Sydney on a chartered flight early this morning.

Another 29 diplomatic staff have also been sent into Beirut and locations in Turkey and Cyprus.

No guarantee

Earlier in the day Prime Minister John Howard said he couldn’t guarantee the evacuation – the largest ever moment of Australians overseas – would take place on time.

“I do ask people to understand the challenges involved here,” he told ABC Radio.

“I think the Department of Foreign Affairs has done a remarkable job in very difficult circumstances. And I think some of the criticism is quite unfair and I reject it.”

Australia has already been outbid in its efforts to charter a ship to take thousands of citizens out of the war zone, and Mr Howard said he could give no guarantees against further problems amid the chaos at Beirut port.

“I stress it’s very chaotic,” he said.

“Arrangements have broken down in the past, not only for Australia but for other countries, and there’s no guarantee that won’t happen in the future.

“Suggestions that the Government has abandoned Australian citizens in Lebanon is quite wrong and I totally reject those suggestions.”

Cyprus airlift

The Government is set to begin a major airlift of Australians out of Cyprus, swinging military and commercial planes into action to get thousands of evacuees from Lebanon back home.

Cyprus is struggling to cope with the massive influx of people after thousands fled to the island.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer is expected to announce plans to mobilise commercial and military aircraft to fly citizens directly home – or to alternative departure points – and then onto Australia.

“In the case of Cyprus, there just isn’t going to be the infrastructure to support all the foreigners arriving there,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer.

“So we are going to have to get people out of Cyprus to hubs, probably in the Middle East and Europe, but we haven’t finalised the details.”

The Government has already diverted a C-130 Hercules from Iraq to help with the operation.

Evacuees may be charged

Evacuees may be charged for part of the estimated A$25m cost of the operation.

While Mr Downer said the issue of cost is still being finalised, the Government’s won’t be charging Australians for their evacuation from Lebanon.

But he said he’s examining the issue about whether it’ll pay for people to be returned from a staging post in Europe or from the Middle East back to Australia.

“We hope to make an announcement about that tomorrow,” he said.