|Indian citizens gather at the embassy in Beirut as they wait to leave Lebanon on Thursday.(AFP)
New Delhi, July 20: Naval warship INS Mumbai today evacuated 700 Indians and nationals of some other countries from war-torn Lebanon, in the biggest rescue effort in a day since the nine-day-old war broke out between Israeli forces and Hizbollah guerrillas.
The INS Mumbai, part of a four-ship rescue mission named Operation Sukoon (relief), docked at Beirut harbour after waiting overnight. It has now left on an eight-hour voyage for Larnaca in Cyprus where the evacuees, among them Nepalese and other nationals, will be airlifted to India by special flights.
Two Air-India planes will leave Mumbai at 0300 hours and 0345 hours for Larnaca. The aircraft are expected to fly in with the evacuees by tomorrow evening.
According to the plan drawn up by the navy, the INS Brahmaputra is next in the queue to dock at Beirut port tomorrow morning. The others ' INS Betwa and INS Shakti ' are anchoring outside the declared war zone.
Officials in the ministry of external affairs said nearly a thousand Indians have approached the embassy in Beirut with a request to move out. More applications are pouring in.
“The evacuation operation will continue in the coming days as required,” foreign ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna said at a joint briefing with Rear Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, the assistant chief of naval staff.
Chauhan said the four ships can carry around 1,000 to 1,200 people and, if the rush increases, the navy plans to start a shuttle service.
Apart from the sea route, Indians in small numbers have been crossing the Lebanon-Syria border by road to reach Damascus. Nearly hundred people have reached the Syrian capital.
Admiral Chauhan said Operation Sukoon posed a challenge as the sea around Lebanon is over-crowded with warships of several countries waiting to evacuate their nationals. One major hazard, he said, was night navigation and berthing at the port because of paucity of staff.
While the navy’s rescue effort is in full swing, India condemned Israel for the military offensive that has so far claimed over 300 lives.
Delhi said the large-scale operation mounted in West Bank and Gaza is a “disproportionate retaliation” for the abduction of an Israeli soldier.
India sought the immediate release of the Palestinian National Authority members arrested by Israeli forces. It said there could be no justification for such an action against elected representatives of the Palestinian people.