BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council approved an urgent plan Tuesday to evacuate thousands of Lebanese caught in the crossfire of Ivory Coast fighting between troops backing democratically elected leader Alassane Ouattara and his rival, embattled strongman Laurent Gbagbo.
The plan calls for sending a Lebanese diplomatic delegation to the commercial capital of Abidjan Wednesday to provide assistance to expatriates stranded there.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry said that an MEA plane carrying 126 Lebanese nationals evacuated from Ivory Coast will arrive at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport Wednesday morning.
The plan’s approval came as Gbagbo rejected France’s demand that he recognize Ouattara as president. France and the U.N. want Gbagbo to sign a document renouncing power and formally recognizing Ouattara, the internationally backed winner of the November election that plunged the West African nation into chaos.
Lebanon’s Ambassador to Ivory Coast, Ali Ajami, said a Lebanese military, diplomatic and administrative delegation will arrive at the Lebanese Embassy in Accra, Ghana, Wednesday to help in the evacuation effort.
“If the Abidjan airport is reopened, Middle East Airlines will run flights to evacuate the Lebanese. But if the airport does not open, the Lebanese delegation will seek help from French troops to evacuate the Lebanese to neighboring countries,” Ajami told The Daily Star.
He said a cease-fire was holding in Abidjan following fierce fighting which erupted Monday night between Gbagbo’s forces and troops loyal to Ouattara. It lasted until dawn Tuesday, after U.N. and French helicopters bombed Ghabgo’s military bases and ammunition depots.
Ajami said some 6,000 Lebanese have left Ivory Coast since the fighting erupted. “There are about 10,000 Lebanese ready to leave when the airport reopens,” he said. However, Ajami said he believes that 80 percent of those registered to leave the country would change their minds and stay in Abidjan if the crisis was resolved.
Ajami said nine Lebanese have been injured, two seriously, in the fighting. He put the number of the Lebanese in the Ivory Coast at 80,000 to 100,000.
The Higher Defense Council, which met under President Michel Sleiman Tuesday, discussed the plight of the Lebanese trapped in Ivory Coast.
“The council was briefed on developments of the situation in Ivory Coast and measures and efforts exerted by the state and its relevant institutions so far,” said a statement after the meeting.
“The council discussed drawing up a practical plan to help the Lebanese nationals in Ivory Coast, ensure the best means to protect them, meet their basic needs, and evacuate those who want to leave the Ivory Coast in coordination with the Lebanese Embassy, the relevant official authorities and the U.N.,” the statement said. The council issued instructions to the relevant ministries to follow up and implement the decisions. The meeting was attended by caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the caretaker ministers of Foreign Affairs, Public Works, Interior and Finance and Army Commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi.
Caretaker Foreign Minister Ali Shami said the plan called for immediately sending a diplomatic team of three ambassadors and advisers to Abidjan, via Ghana, to help the diplomatic mission and Lebanese nationals there.
Speaking at a news conference, Shami said he called Ajami and briefed him on the plan. “I have asked him to make the necessary contacts for the evacuation of the Lebanese through other airline companies, like Qatar which will help us especially if the airport is reopened, and also by boats,” Shami said.
He added that MEA planes will fly to Abidjan to evacuate the Lebanese as soon as the airport there is reopened. Shami said no Lebanese have been killed during the fighting.
“If the military situation ends up in a positive way, I think the Lebanese community will be OK. But there are some who need help, especially the pregnant, elderly and children,” Shami said.
Meanwhile, the French Ambassador to Lebanon, Denis Pietton, said more than 650 Lebanese were under French protection in Ivory Coast during a meeting with Hariri. “We welcomed hundreds of them, and yesterday more than 650 Lebanese were under our protection,” Pietton said. “France is doing its utmost to protect human lives in the Ivory Coast. The situation is complicated.”