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Canadians Begin Evacuation From Lebanon

The federal government has come under heavy fire for its reaction to the crisis for Canadians in Lebanon and some evacuees will get the chance to voice their opinion of the effort directly to the Prime Minister.

Stephen Harper is getting personally involved in the mission to deliver Canadians to safety from the war-torn region, making a detour to Cyprus to pick up about 100 evacuees. He was supposed to fly home from Paris Wednesday following the G8 summit in Russia.

“Because of the seriousness of the situation and our relative proximity to Cyprus, we have decided to take the Canadian Forces aircraft we have been travelling on to help airlift evacuees back home,” Harper said in a statement.

“The aircraft will be stripped down to a skeleton staff.”

Only Harper’s wife, Laureen, three of his communications staff, his official photographer and a few other staffers were joining him on the flight.

Harper denied the trip was a photo opportunity.

“It’s more than a symbolic trip,” he said. “There’s a need for air support in Cyprus. Freeing up seats, we will have a significant number of seats to help the situation.

“I think criticism in this type of situation, given all the complexities, is inevitable one way or another,” Harper added. “We believe there is a real need here. … We believe it’s the right thing to do.”

It’s unclear at this point how long it’ll take to bring all of the Canadians home and some criticized Ottawa for not acting sooner.

This is the largest evacuation effort in Canadian history.

Seven chartered passenger ships were expected to arrive off the Lebanese coast Wednesday to begin transporting Canadian citizens to safer ground. About 30,000 Canadians are believed to be in the region, and federal officials estimate they’ll be able to move about 2,000 of them out per day.

The ships will travel to Cyprus or Turkey, where passengers will disembark and then fly home on government-leased planes.

Thousands of Canadians clamoured for a spot on one of the ships at a hot and crowded Beirut port Wednesday. Many of the people waiting to board Bleu Dawn – a Canadian chartered ferry expected to arrive in Cyprus late Wednesday – voiced their complaints about the government’s slow response.

Telephone calls to the Canadian Embassy apparently went unanswered for days and it wasn’t until Tuesday night that officials spread the word that Canadians should meet on a Beirut street at 7:30am Wednesday.

There was no shade, no washroom facilities and no water at that meeting point.

“It’s a humiliation,” said Nada Sefian, 52. “Is this because we are of Arab origin? The government said `trust us’ and this is the trust I put in them?”

Canada has one of the largest groups of nationals in Lebanon in the world. Eight were killed this weekend in an Israeli air strike.

Israel contended Tuesday it’s prepared to fight Hezbollah fighters for weeks, raising fears that a peace deal might be farther away than other world leaders had hoped.

So far the fighting has claimed 260 lives and displaced nearly half a million people.

On Tuesday, 27 people were killed when Israeli plans struck an army base outside Beirut. Five explosions shook the capital early Wednesday and missiles struck nearby towns.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora called on the guerrilla fighters to release captured Israeli soldiers – their capture sparked the attacks by Israel – but said Israel’s response was disproportionate and accused it of “opening the gates of hell and madness” on his country.

President George W. Bush has accused Syria of trying to influence Lebanon.

“We have made it very clear that Israel should be allowed to defend herself,” Bush said in Washington. “We’ve asked that as she does so that she be mindful of the Saniora government. It’s very important that this government in Lebanon succeed and survive.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert believes Iran may be responsible for sparking the conflict in order to deflect attention from its controversial nuclear program.

So far Israel’s attacks have been limited to air and sea, but army officials didn’t rule out sending in ground troops. The international community is trying to bring about a diplomatic resolution, and in recent days a United Nations mediation team has met with both Lebanese and Israeli leaders.

A proposal to send an international peacekeeping force to boost the 2,000-member UN force in south Lebanon is gaining strength.

Western countries believe the beefed-up force could be part of an eventual ceasefire agreement.