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Press Briefing by Secretary (East) Mr. Rajiv Sikri on Advisory to Indians in Lebanon

New Delhi
July 17, 2006 

Secretary (East): As you are aware, the crisis in Lebanon has been escalating over the last few days and it is our expectation that it is likely to worsen in the coming days particularly in Southern Lebanon which may come under heavy Israeli attack. The Israeli air strikes are taking place and it is not ruled out that there could be some ground forces also that could cross over from Israel to Lebanon. Of course, this is a matter on which we have already expressed our concern and a statement was issued a few days ago but in view of the emerging situation, we are concerned about the welfare of about 12,000 Indian nationals whom we estimate are living in Lebanon. They are mostly unskilled or semi-skilled laborers working in factories, farms and industrial units. Some of them have been in Lebanon for over two decades and they continued to lived there even in the time of the earlier crisis in 1980s. 

Naturally, we are concerned that should the crisis worsen then their welfare and their possible evacuation is something that we have to be concerned about. For the moment we have facilitated the evacuation of all the families of India-based personnel in the Embassy there, as well as some Indian nationals in and around Beirut who wanted to leave Lebanon. This morning a couple of buses were organized by our Embassy and we have just received information that they have safely arrived in Syria. They had crossed over the border and as we speak it’s probable that they may have reached Damascus where our mission will look after their welfare. Two buses, a total of 49 people have been sent out of Lebanon today. 

Our Embassy in Beirut has been constantly in touch with the Indian nationals, who, as I mentioned, are scattered all over the country on the telephone, through associations, gurudwaras and temples, and we have issued an advisory to the nationals in view of the deteriorating situation in Lebanon. All Indian nationals living there, particularly in southern Lebanon, should take suitable precautions regarding their personal safety. I would advise them to remain in contact with our Embassy in Beirut and have given the contact telephone numbers and address of the Embassy which is being manned on a round-the-clock basis. The Embassy will give them the necessary advice and updated information on the evolving situation. It is possible that some of them may not have travel documents, or may need other consular assistance, so our Embassy would assist in this regard. Those Indian nationals who may wish to leave Lebanon and are able to cross into Syria, have been advised to contact the Embassy of India in Damascus, which is also running a 24-hour help line and is being manned round the clock, so that they can also give advise and assistance to the Indians to get back to India. 

As you are aware, there is a naval blockade by Israel, and the airport is damaged and out of commission. So the options for evacuation are quite limited, should such a situation arise. There are only a couple of roads from Lebanon to Syria, and these have also been damaged, but they are operative as the successful evacuation of the Indians in two bus loads this morning from Lebanon to Syria has brought out. 

The Cabinet Secretary held a meeting this evening to review the situation. We are putting in place a contingency plan for assisting and possibly evacuating our nationals should the need arise. We have in the vicinity, four ships of the Indian Navy. They were in the Mediterranean, and they had just crossed the Suez Canal; they are being asked to go back to the Mediterranean, and position themselves off the Lebanese coast. Meanwhile, we are in touch with Israel to see what assistance they can give. We will need some clear period and slot so that the ships can dock and evacuate the people if necessary-- some windows would be required. 

We are also looking at other possibilities of evacuation by air from Damascus, should the need arise. So we just wanted to alert that we are taking all the precautions and making the arrangements for the welfare of our citizens who find themselves in Lebanon in this very difficult situation. 

We also have the peacekeeping force in Lebanon—the UNIFIL—where 672 soldiers, including many officers are there. They are actually in the war-zone and yesterday one of the soldiers was wounded when a stray Israeli shell ricocheted off a rock or something hit him. We have protested to the Israelis and asked them to make sure that this kind of incident does not recur. We are also in touch with the UN to ascertain the future of this peace-keeping mission in the light of the hostilities that are beginning. We are awaiting word from the UN in this regard. 

That in brief is the situation, and I would be happy to take any questions that any of you may have. 

Question: Is our Embassy functioning normally? 

Secretary (East): Yes, our Embassy is functioning normally. As I said, only the families have been evacuated. All our staff and the Ambassador are there. Obviously, the Embassy is not functioning in easy conditions because the communications are disrupted. It is sometimes very difficult to get through to them or for them to get through to us. As a result of the attacks and hits on the power stations, the power situation is quite bad. All the banks are closed so there is problem of finances also. But we are doing whatever is possible to tackle the situation. 

Question: You mentioned the ascertaining of the future of the UN force. Are we also considering pulling out our troops? 

Secretary (East): Well, the safety of our soldiers is obviously very important. It is not ruled out that the UN themselves could decide that they want to wind down this Mission. So, we are in touch with the UN in New York. 

Question: You mentioned that the options for evacuation are very limited. What happened the last time? Did people leave? 

Secretary (East): No, they didn’t leave actually. They all stayed on. So, it is quite possible that many of them may decide to stay on. We don’t know; we are ascertaining from the associations and the Gurudwaras/Temples. We are contacting them to find out who would like to leave. This is a general problem, which is affecting all nations, and as you may be aware there are people from all nationalities in large numbers in Lebanon. They are from western countries, Arab countries, European countries. These countries are also making arrangements to see if they can evacuate. Nobody is quite sure how it will work out because it depends whether ships can get there or aircrafts can get there, whether roads are passable or not. The information that we have is that so far only a few dozens of people or may be a hundred per country have managed to get out. We have also managed to get across about 50 people in two busloads today. 

Question: Will the evacuation continue tomorrow? 

Secretary (East): If there is a demand, yes we will continue with the evacuation subject to the availability of the buses. Today the buses were available but what the situation is like tomorrow I can’t say. 

Question: Which are the other countries that are evacuating people. Does that include UK, US? Are we in touch with them? 

Secretary (East): We will be touch with them also. But in the first instance we are in touch with the Israelis because they are controlling the situation and we would need their cooperation to ensure that the convoys or the ships or any aircrafts that we send there are not attacked. When we sent these two buses from Lebanon to Syria we had given the coordinates to the Israeli side including the details about buses, their numbers and people who were traveling. So they facilitated. We also got confirmation from the Israeli side that they have crossed over into Syria safely. 

Question: Have the Israelis regretted yesterday’s incident? 

Secretary (East): Yes, they have regretted that. That is orally what we have heard from them. 

Question: So far how many families have…

Secretary (East): I was just going to give you those details: from the Indian Embassy officials’ families we have 26 people - the wives and children of our staff members and officers, and from the Indian community we have 6 families. If you want I have the names. They are: Mr. and Mrs. Sanjeev Agrawal and family, Mr. and Mrs. Dipen Modi and family, Mrs. Nirmala Fernandes and family, Mr. and Mrs. Rohit Garg, Mr. and Mrs. Ahmed and family, Mr. and Mrs. Francis and family. The Lebanese government did provide an escort up to the Lebanese border. 

Question: Is there any plan to move out all the staff from the Embassy? 

Secretary (East): At the moment no, because we have to have our staff there to take care of the thousands of Indians. They may have problems; they may want to move out. So at this point there is no plan to evacuate the staff.