U.K., U.S., European Countries Work to Vacate Nationals From Lebanon

U.S. estimates 25,000 Americans live or work in Lebanon; France says close to 17,000 nationals reside in country.

Britain is making contingency plans to protect its interests in the Middle East as Israel's military offensive against Lebanon continues, officials said Saturday.

The United States is working on its own plan to evacuate American citizens from Lebanon to the neighboring island of Cyprus, the U.S. Embassy said Saturday.

A British Ministry of Defense spokeswoman refused to comment on a report by Sky Television that the aircraft carrier Illustrious is being prepared to sail to the Lebanese coast, possibly to evacuate British citizens.

She said contingency plans are being drawn up on protecting British nationals and interests in the Middle East.

"No decisions have been taken. We are reviewing the situation but, as you would expect, engaging in prudent contingency planning," said the spokeswoman, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.

Sky said the government is yet to give permission for the Illustrious to sail for Lebanon. It is currently in Gibraltar and may be sent to Lebanon within days, he said.

The U.S. State Department said Friday that Americans in Lebanon should consider leaving when it is safe to do so, and officials made contingency plans for the evacuation of people who cannot leave on their own.

"We are looking at how we might transport Americans to Cyprus. Once in Cyprus, Americans can then board commercial aircraft for onward travel," an embassy statement said.

"Our best advice is for people to assess their security situation," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday. "Right now ... from the U.S. government perspective, there aren't any reliable ways to get out by air, land or sea."

The U.S. estimates 25,000 Americans live or work in Lebanon, but U.S. officials assume that far fewer would choose to leave if they could.

Saturday's embassy statement said the State Department was continuing to work "around the clock" with the Defense Department on a plan to help American citizens leave Lebanon safely.

A statement posted on the embassy's Web site on Friday urged Americans in Lebanon to be extremely vigilant and avoid non-essential travel because of the escalating violence in the conflict with Israel.

European nations lined up ferries, buses and airplanes to evacuate thousands of their citizens from Lebanon.

France, which has historic ties to Lebanon and 17,000 citizens residing there, announced plans Saturday to ferry French nationals to Cyprus where Air France flights would be waiting to bring them to Paris. The voluntary evacuations will begin Sunday. In addition to French residents, up to 6,000 other Europeans were estimated to be in Lebanon.

However, France was also clearly preparing for the worst, sending two tactical transport C 160 aircraft with three helicopters to Cyprus as well as a transport vessel with two hospital units and four more helicopters - to leave for the region on Sunday, the Defense Ministry said. The frigate Jean de Vienne was ordered deployed in the eastern Mediterranean. The ministry called the measures "precautionary."

"We want to take all the necessary measures for the security of our citizens," Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said at the end of a crisis meeting on Saturday. The government would evaluate the situation in Lebanon "hour by hour," he said. He did not raise the possibility of mandatory evacuations.

So far, no country is known to have ordered all of its citizens out of Lebanon.

A convoy of 410 Italians and others, mainly from the EU, packed up and fled on Saturday, traveling by land to Latakia, Syria. They were boarding military flights to Rome, some going first to Cyprus, the head of the Italian Foreign Ministry's crisis unit, Elisabetta Belloni, said. More than 1,000 Italians remain in Lebanon.

Two Romanian lawmakers and their families also were evacuated to Syria on Saturday, cutting short a vacation. Nicolae Bara told private news television Realitatea TV that the group of 13 people were then going on to Turkey.

Another 160 Romanians requested to leave Lebanon, Romanian Ambassador Aurel Calin told Realitatea and the embassy in Beirut was looking for bus transport to Syria.

Germany, meanwhile, urged an estimated 1,100 German citizens in Lebanon to stay put but avoid unnecessary travel and stay away from potential Israeli targets such as airports and harbors.

Diplomats in Berlin were monitoring the situation closely, preparing for all possible scenarios, the Foreign Ministry said without elaborating.

European Union countries' embassies in Lebanon were reported to be in close contact.

Cyprus said Friday that it was prepared to help the EU with an evacuation plan.

"They have asked us for the facilities (ports and airports) in case this mission is conducted and it will concern all European citizens," Foreign Ministry official Sotos Zackheos said. "The government of Cyprus has given its consent."

Zackheos said France was looking at ways to coordinate EU efforts. No decision was known to have been reached.

The Greek government has said it had chartered an Olympic Airways plane and was ready to fly it to Jordan should any Greek or EU citizens ask to return home. The plane could leave on three hours' notice, the Greek Foreign Ministry said.

As early as Thursday, a group of 115 Cypriots and other foreign nationals, were bussed to Syria then evacuated to Cyprus.

The evacuees - 102 Cypriots, six Britons, four French, two Czechs and one American - made the journey out.

Britain on Saturday issued a travel warning for Lebanon and advised its nationals already in the country to prepare for evacuation, Sky News reported.

In the Netherlands, Dutch authorities said they are also preparing the evacuation of its citizens in Lebanon who wish to leave.

The evacuation was taking place in coordination with other EU member states, a spokesman said.

The ministry put the number of Dutch citizens in the country at 500 residents and a further 200 tourists and other travellers.

It said the evacuation would not take place through Beirut airport, but that efforts were being made to arrange transport at Beirut port with the cooperation of the Israelis.

The spokesman predicted the evacuation, which is taking place on a purely voluntary basis, would begin only Monday.