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Ottawa charters flights to evacuate Canadian citizens out of Egypt

OTTAWA _ Canada is airlifting its citizens from Egypt as anti-government protests continue to rock the North African country, threatening to topple its leadership.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon told a hastily called news conference that charter flights will begin to fly Canadians out of the country as early as Monday.

“We do not want to put Canadians in a precarious situation,” Cannon said Sunday. “Rather than bettering itself, the situation seems to be deteriorating from the reports that we are receiving.”

He said those who choose to get on the flights will be taken to either Frankfurt, London or Paris, and will be expected to make their own arrangements for further travel.

The stranded Canadians will also have to repay the government the price of the chartered flights.

Egypt has descended into chaos, looting and violence after six days of demonstrations demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

Cannon said there had been no reports of Canadians injured or killed in the Egyptian protests. “However, at this time the government is recommending that Canadians leave Egypt.”

There are some 6,500 Canadians in Egypt, and of these about 1,200 are registered with the Canadian Embassy. As many as 800 were expected to board planes on Monday. The flights to Europe will continue as long as necessary, Cannon said.

Canadians in Egypt who want to leave are asked to phone Canada’s embassy in Cairo at 20 2 2791 8700 or call collect to the Foreign Affairs emergency operations centre in Ottawa at 613-996-8885. Relatives in Canada can contact the centre toll-free by dialling 1-800-606-5499.

The Canadian government continued to call on the Egyptian government to bring in democratic and economic reforms and “listen to the aspirations” of its people, but stopped short of pushing for Mubarak’s resignation and urged parties to refrain from violence.

“This is an internal matter that, of course, is incumbent upon the Egyptians themselves to make these decisions,” Cannon said. “Much in the same way as that we wouldn’t tolerate or accept a foreign government telling us how to run our sovereign affairs here in Canada.”

But the minister clearly signalled that Canada wants to see democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights take firm root throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

“We have seen from a number of these demonstrations in the Arab world, that there needs to be reform. That is why Canada is calling for reform, both from a democratic perspective as well as from an economic perspective,” Cannon said.

“We certainly hope that on a going-forward basis these changes will take place, that there will be a more stable Arab world, a more stable Middle East, and that ultimately this will contribute to the global stability around the world.”

In Montreal on Sunday, NDP Leader Jack Layton echoed Cannon’s call for a more democratic government in Cairo.

“We’re all hoping for that and we hope that the (Canadian) government will play whatever role is appropriate to help make that happen,” Layton said.

“It’s important for us to encourage that transition and for it to be, hopefully, a peaceful one.”

Mubarak, an autocratic leader who has held power for 30 years, named his first-ever vice-president, fired his cabinet and promised reforms, but protesters are still demanding that he step down.

The official death toll from the crisis stood Sunday at 97, with thousands injured, but reports from witnesses across the country indicated the actual toll was far higher.

Canadians in Egypt were being advised to “carefully evaluate” their security, avoid all demonstrations and keep a supply of basic food on hand.

Some Canadians weren’t impressed with Ottawa’s actions.

James Di Fiore has spent much of the past three days worrying about his girlfriend and her mother, who have been holed up in a Cairo hotel.

He said the Canadian Embassy and Foreign Affairs have been little help as citizens stranded in Cairo and other cities scramble for information and look for a way to get home.

“Our federal government was missing in action up until an hour ago,” Di Fiore told The Canadian Press soon after Cannon’s announcement.

The 34-year-old Toronto resident also bristled at the fact that his loved ones will only be taken as far as Europe and will have to eventually pay for their evacuation.

“(The government) is running the protection elements of what it’s supposed to provide for its citizens as a business.”

In Cairo, his girlfriend, Michelle Bozak, spent the last three days trying to get in touch with embassy staff for advice and support but couldn’t reach a single Canadian official. She was able to talk to Di Fiore on her Canadian cell phone but does not have access to the Internet.

Now, with the chartered flights on offer, Di Fiore says it will be a challenge for Bozak and her mother to make their way to the airport, particularly after staff in their hotel have advised against stepping into the frantic streets where travellers have been robbed or assaulted at frequent roadblocks.

“Aside from having me on the telephone she has gone through this entire ordeal completely void of any help from the Canadian federal government,” he said. “I think that’s dropping the ball.”

Earlier Sunday, Liberal MP Dan McTeague, the party’s consular affairs critic, urged Ottawa to come up with an evacuation strategy.

Canada’s plan to remove citizens from the North African country comes alongside a similar effort by the United States. The American embassy in Cairo said it was making arrangements to transport Americans who want to leave to “safehaven locations in Europe.” Those flights would also begin Monday.

Meanwhile, several Arab nations, including Iraq, have either sent in jets to take their citizens home or have offered to do so.

The last mass evacuation of Canadians abroad took place between July 19 and mid-August, 2006, when about 14,000 Canadians were removed to Cyprus and Turkey from strife-torn Lebanon. As many as 40,000 Canadians were registered with the Canadian Embassy in Beirut.

Ottawa decided in that case that taxpayers would foot the bill for the cost of the evacuation. Charges were also waived after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Canadians with questions about consular matters can call the department at 1-800-267-6788 (toll-free from U.S. and Canada only) or 613-944-6788.

(With files from Diana Mehta in Toronto)