LARNACA, Cyprus (Reuters) -Ships and aircraft on Saturday whisked more exhausted people fleeing the fighting in Lebanon to safety in Cyprus in a mass international effort that has so far evacuated more than 25,000 people.
Cypriot Foreign Minister Georgios Lillikas, inspecting a French-chartered boat in Larnaca port that had just brought in 1,200 people, said he expected many more evacuees to arrive on the tiny holiday island, straining its limited resources.
“We expect the number to triple in the coming days. There are more than 60,000 to 70,000 to be evacuated through Cyprus,” he said, as he toured the Ierapetra with Catherine Colonna, France’s minister for European affairs.
Asked about Cyprus’s appeal for help from its European Union partners in moving evacuees home, she said: “I hope the answer is swift and positive … This is an enormous burden on Cyprus.”
Conditions on the boat were cramped, with people lying on sheets on the floor. Long queues had formed outside the toilets.
The amphibious transport USS Trenton, the biggest ship so far involved in the evacuation, docked earlier on Saturday at the Cypriot port of Limassol with some 1,800 people. The USS Nashville arrived later with another 1,000.
Evacuees described scenes of mayhem in Lebanon, where many had been holidaying or visiting family when the Israeli rockets began falling 11 days ago.
“I was at my club playing tennis and suddenly heard shelling over my head,” said Eddy Munzer, 66, a retired lawyer from Florida. “The situation is so uncertain, I don’t see any bright future in the short term.
U.S. officials said they expected to have evacuated about 4,000 Americans on Saturday and forwarded about 2,000 home, leaving many at a makeshift reception center in Nicosia.
“It’s very busy but it’s under control,” one official said.
Officials said the French humanitarian agency Medecins Sans Frontieres planned to send 60 tonnes of emergency aid through Cyprus to Lebanon.
France sent 20 tonnes of water, along with food and medicines, on Friday to Beirut and planned to dispatch a water purifying plant on Saturday.
Nearly 200 non-essential United Nations staff and their families walked ashore from a boat chartered by the world body.
British and Australian service personnel also stepped up efforts to rescue their nationals.
“In the next couple of days we are really going to start moving a lot of people through here,” Australia’s High Commissioner in Cyprus, Garth Hunt, said in Larnaca.
“As far as we are concerned, nobody should have to fend for themselves,” he said after welcoming ashore nearly 350 Australians from a Maltese catamaran contracted by Canberra.
Another 500 Australians were expected to arrive at Larnaca on a chartered ship in the evening.
The British government, in an announcement carried by the BBC, said Saturday would be the last scheduled British maritime evacuation of U.K. passport-holders from Beirut.
It urged those wanting to leave to gather at a conference hall in the Lebanese capital between 8 am and 4 pm local time.
Turkey started to share Cyprus’s burden and hundreds of evacuees, mostly Canadian and some Swedish citizens, have also been arriving in the port of Mersin to the north of Cyprus, where they were welcomed with carnations.
“We are working at a capacity of about 1,000 people a day,” Canadian ambassador to Ankara Yves Brodeur told Reuters.”