(Reuters) - Thousands of people fleeing Israel's 12 days of bombing in Lebanon poured into Cyprus and Turkey on Sunday as the United Nations appealed for aid for the many more staying behind.
About 15 ships were expected at Cypriot ports overnight in what may be the peak of the organized evacuation effort that has so far whisked about 30,000 people to Cyprus, a small Mediterranean island struggling to cope with the influx, reports Trend.
Britain and the United States said they were starting to wind down operations but Cyprus said there may be another 40,000 people yet to come.
Turkey stepped in to share the burden and over 3,000 mostly Canadian, Australian and U.S. evacuees have arrived at its southern port of Mersin, welcomed by Red Crescent workers.
"It's the biggest Australian evacuation since the Second World War," Australian ambassador to Turkey Jean Dunn told Reuters, saying her country expected to take 6,000 or more of its 20,000 citizens out of Lebanon this week.
Evacuees appeared relieved their ordeal was over but distressed to leave family and friends behind.
"It's horrible to think of all those people dying for nothing," said Sarah Osseirane, 20, a law student from Paris, coming off a French warship in Larnaca. "I'm glad to be safe but I'm thinking of all the people we left there."
France's Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said after visiting the vessel that had brought in 200 evacuees: "Until today, we have responded to 5,000 (evacuation) requests and we have another 9,000 pending."
She said France would leave its operations in Cyprus in place to help pass humanitarian aid to Lebanon. U.N. officials have said they will establish an aid staging point in Cyprus.
Nearly 30,000 people from dozens of countries have fled to the island and Cyprus warned the figure may rise to 70,000, straining resources at the height of its tourist season.
Overnight, more than 1,000 weary Canadians came ashore in the sticky Cypriot summer heat. Women tried to pacify screaming infants as they queued to enter a cramped reception center.
A further 15 vessels are expected to bring in more French, Canadian, American and Indian evacuees by early Monday.
"Thank God they brought us here," said tearful Australian Jacqueline Azzi, traveling with her husband and two children. "It felt like forever. We were living from hour to hour."
U.S. officials said they had evacuated about 10,000 Americans from Lebanon and ships were expected to bring out at least another 1,600 by Monday.
"Our message to American citizens is if you want to get out, get out now," said a U.S. official who requested anonymity. "We're definitely, definitely on the downward slope now."
With airports congested, many Americans were still stuck at a makeshift camp in a fairground in the Cypriot capital Nicosia awaiting charter flights home.
By contrast, an estimated 5,000 British evacuees passing through the British air force base at Akrotiri in southern Cyprus were swiftly processed and flown home and Britain said it was wrapping up its maritime evacuation on Sunday.
Not everyone was fleeing Lebanon. Hulie Zide, 45, was one of dozens of Lebanese heading back to their country on Sunday aboard a French-chartered boat.
"I love my country. I have my job, I have my mum and dad, my family. I have to work and I have to support them," said Zide, who had been on holiday in Paris when the war started. "I am not afraid of dying under their bombs."
As the ship approached Beirut, a group of Lebanese held hands in a circle of prayer, led by Father Magdi El-Alawi.
"I was praying for God to help Lebanon," the Catholic priest said.