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Delhi in Lebanon hot water
- Lanka SOS and long queue for evacuation

New Delhi, July 18: The navy last night asked four of its warships to stand by in the eastern Mediterranean to ferry thousands of Indians in Lebanon to safer places but New Delhi is late off the starting block in mounting efforts to evacuate its citizens from embattled Beirut.

Adding to the mammoth task facing India, if all its citizens ' around 12,000 ' have to be lifted out of Lebanon, is Sri Lanka. Colombo has requested New Delhi to help evacuate some 80,000 Lankans stranded in Lebanon because its own military is too tied up with the LTTE at home.

India has also asked the UN department of peacekeeping operations what the plans for Unifil ' the United Nations Interim Force for Lebanon ' are because the current deployment of about 1,900 troops is not sustainable.

Indian and Ghanaian troops continue to be in a dangerous zone between Israeli Hellfire missiles and Hizbollah Katyusha rockets with no peace to keep.

Although an Indian soldier was injured in the crossfire between the Israelis and the Hizbollah on Sunday, the gravity of the West Asia crisis has only just begun to sink in.

Late this evening, the cabinet secretary summoned the defence secretary and senior officials to a meeting to work out the logistics of evacuating the stranded.

The Indian warships that can ferry 800 to 1,000 passengers at a time are in queue behind the British, the US and the Canadians who have deployed aircraft carriers, big helicopters and commercial liners to evacuate their citizens in an exercise The Times, London, has described as the biggest evacuation since Dunkirk in World War II.

The Israeli defence forces are not only pounding Beirut with artillery and rockets but have also mounted a naval blockade of Lebanon with warships. A navy source in New Delhi said: “We have asked the Israelis to open a window for our ships to go in and rescue our people; we understand that Israel has offered to cooperate.”

But the Indian ships may still not have the wherewithal to airlift citizens who are not only in Beirut but all over the country. An external affairs ministry official said many Indians were unwilling to leave at the moment and preferred to wait it out.

The alternative route is to take a bombed-out highway that is a nerve-racking 15-18 hour drive from Beirut to Damascus in Syria.

The INS Mumbai, a guided missile destroyer, the INS Betwa and the INS Brahmaputra, guided missile frigates, and the replenishment tanker INS Shakti are part of the flotilla that is in the region now.

Most European nations and the Americans are airlifting the evacuees to Cyprus. India, too, cannot bank on the warships to sail home with the passengers and will have to unload them in the neighbourhood of Lebanon and order special flights of the air force or its civilian airlines to fly evacuees back.

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