BEIRUT: Embassies in Lebanon have enhanced protective measures and precautions, in expectation of more security incidents in the country and a potential military strike on neighboring Syria.
The U.S. Embassy also called on American citizens to avoid travel to Lebanon citing security concerns, and stated in its Twitter feed Monday that “ U.S. citizens living and working in Lebanon should understand that they accept risks in remaining and should carefully consider those risks.”
But it denied giving its nationals living in Beirut a deadline to leave the country, with the embassy also tweeting that “reports that [ U.S. Embassy in Lebanon] gave U.S. citizens a deadline to leave Lebanon are false.”
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon is also considering measures to evacuate peacekeepers and their families in the event the region slips into chaos.
Despite repeated denials by the spokesperson for the multinational peacekeeping force, security sources have told The Daily Star that plans have been put in place to evacuate the families of UNIFIL staff based to the south of the Litani River in light of the fragile security situation.
But UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti told The Daily Star he had no information on the matter and no measures have been issued so far.
Italy had dispatched a warship to the eastern Mediterranean that could serve to evacuate Italian troops from Lebanon if the conflict in Syria escalates further and spills over the border, the country’s navy said last week.
Italy has 1,100 soldiers working with the United Nations task force along Lebanon’s southern border.
Tenenti said had he no information on the Italian ship nor on any evacuation measures, and added that all UNIFIL contingents were “firmly committed” to their participation in the mission.
“As far as the mission is concerned, nothing has changed,” he said.
The American Embassy in Lebanon withdrew its non-emergency personnel last week amid fears that U.S. interests may be threatened if the American government decided to go ahead with strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
“The Department of State drew down non-emergency personnel and family members from Embassy Beirut due to threats to U.S. mission facilities and personnel,” a statement on the embassy website said.
Tensions have been simmering in the region after Western powers implied they would launch a military strike against Assad’s regime over its alleged use of chemical weapons following an Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta.
Lebanon has been suffering from a deteriorating security situation, particularly after twin car bombs ripped through two mosques in the northern city of Tripoli last month, killing 47 and wounding scores more. A car bomb rocked Beirut’s southern suburb of Ruwaiss a week earlier, claiming 30 lives and wounding hundreds.
Late last month, cautionary measures were taken by Cyprus Airways and Air France, which modified their flight schedules to and from Beirut.
Later Monday, caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel met with newly appointed American Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale, and the two discussed the embassy’s decision to withdraw some of its staff, as well as the large influx of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Charbel stressed that “the Higher Defense Council in Lebanon has taken a series of measures to protect the premises of diplomatic missions and fight terrorism.”
He added that Lebanese authorities had beefed up security forces and increased patrols in order to maintain security.
Separately, Hale visited caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel; Kataeb party leader Amin Gemayel; Brig. Ibrahim Basbous, the acting-director general of the Internal Security Forces; and former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Gulf countries have also taken the initiative of issuing travel warnings to their citizens. The press attache at the Saudi Embassy in Lebanon said all embassy personnel were still in the country and had not been asked to leave, but warnings advising nationals not to travel beyond Beirut still stand.
Later Monday, Saudi nationals in Lebanon received a text message from the embassy advising them to leave the country.
“In view of recent developments, the embassy sees it best to leave for the kingdom. We urge ... you tomorrow afternoon to be at the Saudi Arabian Airlines counter to leave,” it said.
Bahrain has also urged its citizens to leave Lebanon due to the volatile situation.
The Kuwaiti Embassy took further measures and began evacuating specific Kuwaiti nationals, and it has so far sent two airplanes to carry out the evacuations this month.
According to Egyptian Ambassador to Lebanon Ashraf Hamdy, the embassy has not taken extra precautionary measures so far, but has advised Egyptian nationals visiting or staying in Lebanon to keep in touch with the embassy. Contingency plans are in place should the security situation further deteriorate, Hamdy told The Daily Star.
Ricardo Simimmo, counselor to the Italian ambassador, said the entire staff at the Italian Embassy was still in the country and would remain for the time being.
“Nothing has changed for us, nothing similar to what the U.S. Embassy did,” Simimmo said.
He added that the embassy had not advised Italian nationals residing in Lebanon to leave the country just yet, but has advised against non-essential travel to Lebanon.
While business goes on as usual, Simimmo said the embassy was “assessing different scenarios,” and has revised its lists of nationals and made sure all of its contacts were in order.
“We are on standby so far, and we will decide what to do in the future depending on the situation,” he said.
The German Embassy also issued a warning late last month, saying that it was not recommended for its nationals to travel to Lebanon, particularly to the north, including the Tripoli neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, the Bekaa Valley, the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared, and southern areas such as Ain al-Hilweh and Mieh-Mieh near Sidon, and Beirut’s southern suburbs.
The embassy also called on its citizens to avoid large crowds, especially political demonstrations, and to regularly follow local media coverage.
Germans who are residing in Lebanon were also advised to stay in contact with the embassy.
The French Embassy insisted Monday that it had not renewed travel warnings since it issued a list of precautionary measures for French nationals last week.
The embassy cautioned against all travel within the country except on rare occasions in “the western half of the country.”
It urged its citizens not to travel to the southern border with Israel, the border close to Syria or to Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Similarly, the United Kingdom advised against all travel to the northern city of Tripoli, Beirut’s southern suburbs, Baalbek, and the borders with Syria. It also asked its nationals to be wary of any “anti-western sentiment” following a potential military strike in Syria, according to its website.
“We have taken a tough call to change our advice temporarily and discourage travel to Lebanon,” British Ambassador Tom Fletcher.