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.
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.
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.