(AFP) - The evacuation of British nationals from bomb-scarred Lebanon could begin soon, the foreign ministry here said, as two British warships powered towards the region
In an agonising wait for everyone involved, the ships are not expected to arrive before Wednesday, said Foreign Office minister Kim Howells, noting that Britain was moving as fast as possible to rescue its nationals, reports Trend.
However a foreign office spokesman later suggested the evacuation could begin earlier, without referring to the warships HMS Illustrious and HMS Bulwar.
"An evacuation could happen later on today, Monday... It is up to the military," the spokesman said. "It does require the co-operation of the Israelis and Lebanese."
He added that the process of securing co-operation from the Israelis and Lebanese to enable a safe evacuation of UK nationals from Lebanon was "ongoing".
A "Rapid Deployment Team" from the Foreign Office has arrived in Beirut to assist British nationals. A military reconnaissance team has also arrived to carry out detailed planning for a possible evacuation, the spokesman said.
Howells told BBC radio on Sunday that the evacation wouldn't be easy: "There's essentially a war going on there at the moment, there are shells being fired, there are war planes zooming overhead," he said.
"We've seen these scenes of some countries trying to get people out by buses when they've been endangered by explosions on the sides of the roads.
"We don't want to do that to our citizens. We want to get those who we need to get out as safely and as quickly as possible."
As well as the two navy ships Britain had other boats, including merchant vessels, in the Mediterranean which might be called on to carry evacuees to a reception centre in Cyprus, Howells said.
He acknowledged that it was a worrying time for those in Lebanon and gave assurances that the navy would reach them by Wednesday or Thursday at the latest.
"The people must be absolutely terrified," he said.
"It's no good us sending helicopters in if they are going to be shot at by whomever.
"We don't know for example what the attitudes of the terrorists... are going to be in this situation."
Howells noted that Britain was "one of the lead nations" on the evacuation plans, and was working in co-operation with the United States and Australia.
There are about 10,000 British nationals in Lebanon, but officials are trying to identify the most needy. A further 10,000 people hold dual British-Lebanese nationality.
These might include the elderly, children or people there without any friends or support, such as business travellers.
Howells acknowledged that "lots of others" would not want to move because they felt safer staying put.
The evacuation plan kicked in as over 50 Lebanese were killed in a devastating blitz of Israeli strikes on Sunday and the Jewish state was hit by an unprecedented rocket attack.