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Foreign Minister discusses evacuating Australians from Lebanon; and the situation in the Middle East.

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DATE: 19 July 2006

TITLE: Radio National interview with Fran Kelly.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, good morning.


KELLY: Minister, can you begin by filling us in on the plan for this evacuation, who will be on this first ferry that moves out today, I think?

DOWNER: Well, let me just try to explain that this is the most daunting task. People have got to understand that this is a war zone and it is extremely difficult to get people out of a country which is subject to military attack. So people in the Department and in the Embassy in Beirut have been working day and night to the point of exhaustion trying to get people out and of course, we have already got nearly 200 people out as it is. So let’s not forget

that. Secondly, we have chartered a ship - which is a Turkish ship - which is scheduled to arrive today. To add to the problems, the port is now starting to get quite congested in Beirut, so the logistics of managing that for everybody are not going to be very easy. The ship hasn’t arrived yet, but the logistics are going to be quite difficult and the ship will be delayed in

getting into the port if the port is insufficiently well organised. We have also made arrangements with other countries for Australians to go on vessels they’re able to get. For example, today there will be around 100 places made available - we’ve negotiated - on a Canadian ship, and once the American ships arrive - and they haven’t arrived yet, and British ships arrive - and only one of those has arrived and a small number of Australians managed to get onto that ship - I think there are a maximum of 15 who are getting onto that ship - but once the larger British ships arrive, we have arrangements with the British to put a lot of people on those ships. So, number one, we have a large number of options - and I can tell you we’ve already started to get people out, but, number two, the logistics, as you’ve just heard, in a country like Lebanon in a state of war - which doesn’t have the best infrastructure in the world in any case - they’re obviously very difficult.

KELLY: No doubt it’s a logistical nightmare. Just going back to that point of how do you sort of prioritize, who do you get on this first ship load, or, who gets on this British or Canadian ship? How do you sort through who gets first passage out?

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DOWNER: Inevitably, like most countries, our Embassy is giving priority to families with small children, the elderly, and the sick and infirm - so they’ve got to be the priorities. In those circumstances, people who are able bodied and they are on their own -

they don’t necessarily have children with them in any case - they’ll probably be more delayed in getting out than the other categories of people.

KELLY: Minister, Father Joe Takchi just told us about at least one woman who felt she couldn’t get safely to an evacuation point - how do you organise this logistically, physically getting people to the ships with the roads and bridges destroyed, the insecurity of the whole situation - Father Joe himself said that his mother is in the hills in a wheelchair. How do you do that?

DOWNER: Well exactly, that illustrates very clearly the logistical problems that we face. I mean, if it were in Queensland it would be hard enough, but we simply don’t have any resources in Lebanon other than three or four Embassy cars - that’s about all we have. And where bridges have been blown and roads destroyed, they’re not any use. So it’s fantastically difficult to do and people have to try themselves to work out ways of getting to the Port or to the Embassy to get on the buses. Now obviously substantial numbers of people have. Where people have difficulty they should just keep in contact with the Embassy. We now have around 7 and a half thousand people registered with the Embassy, so, although we continue to

send in reinforcements to build up the number of staff in the Embassy, it’s still - as you can imagine - enormously difficult keeping in touch just with those people, and then there are 25,000 Australians - although they would mainly be Lebanese as well as Australian - they’ll be dual nationals in the country. So, trying to manage all of this is not a unique problem for Australia - every country is going through it - but it is extraordinarily difficult.

KELLY: It’s not a unique problem, of course, and there has been criticism of the way Australia’s handled it in comparison to some others. I mean, you’re just saying that people should keep in contact with the Embassy; we’ve been hearing across all our media outlets for days that people can’t get through; they’ve been ringing for days - why didn’t we do what other governments have done and taken out ads on Lebanese television with

messages of re-assurance and instruction?

DOWNER: I don’t know that they haven’t actually, and I’ll check that because that’s the first I’ve heard of that. I personally of course wasn’t familiar with what was on Lebanese television, so I’m interested to hear what the Father has said, so I’ll look into that.

But the system that they’ve been using - the Embassy’s been using - is the system that they’ve judged to be the best. So, all I can say is - I’ll look into it. But, if I may say so, where you get criticism of Australia, I know from all my colleagues in other Western countries it’s exactly the same phenomenon - at the end of the day, governments, including ours, are doing everything they humanly can to try to get people out. They are working night and day, they are under enormous pressure - those people on the ground in Lebanon, including the ones we’ve brought in, are risking their lives to try to get people out. That needs to be remembered and understood. If it were easy it would have been done several days ago. It is a fantastically difficult logistical task and it’s a tough thing to say to people who are understandably worried…

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KELLY: … made more difficult by Israel’s rejection of your request for safe passage, or for some short ceasefire. I mean, were you angry that Israel isn’t granting that co-operation?

DOWNER: We’re continuing to talk to the Israelis about ways that they might be able to facilitate our capacity to get people out of the Southern part of Lebanon. Because obviously in other parts of Lebanon there haven’t been attacks - some parts of the country haven’t been militarily attacked. The problem is particularly in the South. I am very worried about the Australians who are stuck there in the South - there simply isn’t any way out and there’s no way of us getting in to help them. The best way I can put it to you - there’s no point in getting into an argument with the Israelis about it - the best way I can put it to you is to say that we are continuing our discussions with them, which we were doing through yesterday.

KELLY: Well Minister, we’re almost out of time, but should more international pressure be put on Israel to come to the table on the issue of things like a ceasefire and to allow some kind of international stabilisation force?

DOWNER: There is a United Nations presence in Southern Lebanon…

KELLY: The UN wants to totally scale that up.

DOWNER: Well, for it to have any effect - it’s been there and it hasn’t stopped the problem - never forget that. Secondly, of course if it was scaled up it’s likely to become more effective, but it would have to be very substantially scaled up - you’d have enormous problems working out what troops could go in and where they could come from. But I mean those issues can be addressed. And finally, as you know, what the Israelis are really focussed on is not attacking the Lebanese for the sake of attacking Lebanon or the Lebanese, but attacking Hezbollah - which is a terrorist organisation committed to destroying the state of Israel. Now, until they feel more comfortable that they’ve done the job, or the Lebanese army come in and take over the security of Southern Lebanon, I suspect this is going to continue.

KELLY: Alright Minister, thank you very much for joining us on breakfast.

DOWNER: It’s a pleasure.