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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 July 2006, 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK
British evacuees arrive in Cyprus
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, in Limassol

British Sailor Jon Coates
Almost 200 Britons arrived in Limassol from Beirut on Wednesday
The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Gloucester called into port in Limassol early on Wednesday morning.

The vast, grey warship slid almost silently into dock. Shortly afterwards the first British citizens to be evacuated from Beirut by sea were making their way on to Cyprus and to safety.

Eight days after the bombing of Lebanon began, this group of 175 evacuees was considered the highest priority. Most were women, the elderly and young children, including triplets in pushchairs.

The majority are British but the group also includes other Europeans, Australians and Canadians.

I fear for those who've been left behind but at least we've taken him out
Rabih el Fadel

All in all it was a successful journey, said HMS Gloucester's captain, Commander Mike Patterson: "People have been very apprehensive but once they got on board it was like a weight had been lifted from their shoulders. Since then they've relaxed considerably."

Once through immigration procedures, the British evacuees began telling their tales.

Rabih el Fadel had travelled to Cyprus from London to meet his 12-year-old son off the Gloucester. Hussain had been holidaying in Lebanon with relatives when the shelling began.

"It was such a relief to see him, I'm really glad," said Mr El Fadel, as Hussain emerged complaining of slight sea-sickness, but otherwise unscathed. "I fear for those who've been left behind, but at least we've taken him out and that's great."

Elize Mazegi with Yasmin, Isabella and Joey
Elize Mazegi with her five-month-old triplets were among the evacuees

"I could see smoke from the balcony, it looked pretty bad," Hussain said as his father ruffled his hair. "I think the first bomb was the loudest, it made you jump; it made your heart stop."

Now safely out of Lebanon, Hussain says he wants to sleep and eat.

Also aboard HMS Gloucester were Maria and Jo Noujeim and their two young sons. They signed up for the ship when they judged it too dangerous to drive via Damascus.

"The children have been so brave," said Maria. Her family's apartment is close to Beirut airport.

We just had to leave them to it. A lot of people don't have any choice
Maria Noujeim

"They heard the bombs, the building was shaking, we were getting no sleep. We wanted to leave as soon as it started because no-one seems to have any idea where all this will end."

A charter plane organised by the British foreign office will take just under half of the evacuees on to Stansted in the UK from the RAF base at Akrotiri.

Although no-one is forced to leave the island, Cyprus would struggle to accommodate the many thousands of evacuees due to arrive here over the coming days - at the height of the tourist season.

Joe and Maria Noujeim with their children
The first sea-bound wave of evacuees looked tired, but relieved

Less than four hours after docking, HMS Gloucester was restocked, refuelled and heading back towards Beirut to collect more passengers. Her sister ship HMS York is due into Limassol later on Wednesday with a second group of British evacuees.

The two ships will then operate a shuttle service until everyone who wants to leave Lebanon can do so.

But the immense relief of many British families now safely here on Cyprus is tinged with regret; many have had to leave Lebanese friends and relatives behind as the bombing continues.

"We had to leave all of my husband's family in Lebanon" Maria Noujeim said. "We stocked up the house with what we could, with water, food and petrol, but we just had to leave them to it. A lot of people don't have any choice."

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