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Embassy in Lebanon prepared to help every Canadian there evacuate if necessary, ambassador says

Canada’s ambassador to Lebanon says the embassy and its staff are ready to assist the approximately 17,000 registered Canadians in the country should they need to evacuate, amid escalating tensions between Israel and Hezbollah.

Stefanie McCollum told CTV’s Power Play host Vassy Kapelos in an exclusive television interview airing Tuesday that “planning is underway” for possible assisted departures, and that she “feel(s) prepared” if the federal government announces it’ll go ahead with that measure.

“We feel ready to be able to help Canadian citizens with their requirements should Canada proceed with an assisted departure, yes,” she said. “It will take time and the numbers are significant, but in terms of preparing, in terms of having a plan, in terms of having a whole-of-government capacity to respond, I do believe we’re there.”

The fighting between Israel and the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah has intensified in recent weeks, and the Canadian government has been warning of the deteriorating security situation in the region.

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly has been imploring Canadians in Lebanon to come home, saying earlier this week: “it is time.”

But Joly has not said whether the Canadian government is prepared to launch and pay for flights for the thousands of citizens currently in Lebanon to evacuate.

She encouraged Canadians to “get out” of Lebanon using the still-available commercial flights.

“What I would say is the situation in Lebanon right now is unpredictable and volatile,” McCollum said. “We're watching closely the daily skirmishes that are happening along the southern border.”

She added, “Right now those skirmishes seem to be contained, so we are hoping that no escalation or spread of the current conflict reaches Lebanon."

When asked whether, based on her assessment of the risks, she would leave the country on a commercial flight if she weren’t the ambassador and required to be there, McCollum didn't directly answer.

“I think Canadians have to assess their own personal situation, they have to assess what type of environment is available to them, how safe they are, and do they have support networks,” she said.

“As an employee of the embassy, we have a certain infrastructure and networks here that I can avail myself of, my employer provides me some support, and I think I would factor that into my decision making.”

“But all Canadians have to factor that into their decision making and we are advising Canadians that it's safe to leave now and they should do so,” McCollum said.

Last week, fearing the Israel-Hamas war could spread, and accounting for the fighting in southern Lebanon, the Canadian government issued an “avoid all travel” advisory for the country.

While approximately 17,000 Canadians in Lebanon have registered with the embassy — an increase that McCollum said she’s “pleased” to see so staff can keep track of everyone — it’s unclear how many citizens are there who have not registered. It’s also unclear how many have already heeded the government’s advice and left the country via a commercial flight.

The Canadian government last evacuated approximately 14,370 citizens out of Lebanon in July 2006, also amid fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, at a total cost of $94 million at the time.

McCollum said the Canadian embassy in Beirut has built lessons learned from that situation into its planning for any future possible evacuations.

“Our planning is robust and takes into account all sorts of scenarios,” she said. “It's been exercised quite a bit.”

For McCollum’s full interview, watch CTV’s Power Play at 5 p.m. ET.

With files from CTVNews.ca’s Senior Digital Parliamentary Reporter Rachel Aiello