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Asian Governments Seek Safety for Citizens in Mideast


Asian officials are scrambling to find refuge for tens of thousands of their citizens stranded in Israel and Lebanon.

Tens of thousands of Asian nationals are trying to flee violence between Israel's military and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Israeli air strikes on the Lebanese airport and docks have limited evacuation options.

Most are employed as farm laborers and domestic workers, but there are thousands of aid workers, diplomats, business people, students and people with dual citizenship. There also are hundreds of Asian tourists in the region.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told reporters Monday that officials are considering two evacuation routes for Australians.

"One is chartering three buses and trying to get up a particular coastal road into Syria," he said. "Secondly there is the option of chartering a vessel [ship] and we have identified a vessel that we could charter."

Officials estimate there could be 25,000 Australians in Lebanon.

New Zealand, Japan and Thailand also are making evacuation plans for their citizens. Some 25 thousand Thais work in Israel - most as farm laborers.

About 30,000 Philippine nationals are known to work in Lebanon, but there could be thousands of undocumented workers. On Monday, the Philippine government began setting up a temporary relocation center.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Gilbert Asuque says the government is preparing for a mass evacuation, possibly chartering a boat to Cyprus or Syria.

"We're now relocating Filipinos to a safe area outside of Beirut and that is one of the Catholic churches that the embassy has designated as a relocation point," said Asuque.

Philippines officials say special Middle East envoy Roy Cimatu is headed to Lebanon to evaluate the situation.

The Philippines carried out similar evacuations during the 1991 Gulf War, when thousands of Filipinos were stranded in Kuwait.

Migrants rights groups are now lobbying governments to prevent a repeat of that situation. At the Hong Kong office of the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants, the director Ramon Bultron says he fears workers could become trapped in Lebanon if the violence escalates.

"With the experience of what happened in the Gulf War in 1991, migrants were in a very difficult situation. Many of them were abandoned by their employers who had the chance and opportunity to leave the country before the actual war and many, especially women, were abused, sexually abused during the occupation," reminded Bultron.

The fighting in Lebanon, which began last week after Hezbollah militants kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, shook Asian markets Monday as investors worried about high oil prices.

Taipei's main index lost 2.6 percent, while Bombay's Sensex index lost more than 3.5 percent.

The dollar rose slightly against the yen, as nervous investors sought a safe currency because of rising oil prices.

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