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Mobile technology aids Swedish evacuation

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14:29 CEST+02:00
By Thursday morning, almost all Swedish citizens had been evacuated from Lebanon after a gruelling four-day, round-the-clock operation coordinated by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Stockholm.

Thoroughout the process there have been reports of chaos, disorganisation and a lack of information, blamed partly on the fact that Sweden only has a consulate, rather than an embassy, in Beirut.

But the Swedish evacuation effort, supported by mobile phone technology, has been held up as a "model of order" by commentators in other countries such as Canada, Australia and the US which, on Thursday, were only beginning their own evacuations.

The Toronto Star described how many Canadian families gathering in the sweltering heat were subjected to "the stress of seeing children or spouses left off the list" followed by hours of arguing.

"At about the same time, Swedish citizens had gathered in an air-conditioned hotel," wrote the paper.

"Their names were placed on a list only after they boarded buses that shuttled them to a first boat, which carried 1,600 Swedes to safety, and a second one that ferried away 300."

The Canberra Times reported that the Australian effort was being unfavourably compared with that of a number of countries including Sweden, while USA Today slammed America's apparent inaction, pointing out that three ships had been chartered by Sweden to carry citizens to Cyprus.

According to foreign ministry spokeswoman Nina Ersman, text messaging has been a major tool in the Swedish evacuation operation.

"In the last week we have sent out five text messages to everyone in Lebanon who is registered with a Swedish mobile network," she told The Local.

Telia's Jan Sjöberg explained that its mobile subscribers who were in Lebanon were sent an SMS as early as last Friday, which told them that an evacuation would be taking place.

Since then, further messages have told people to get to a certain hotel at a certain time, depending upon their priority status.

"The GSM technology allows us to do this," said Sjöberg.

"We have roaming agreements with two operators in Lebanon. Around 300 of our customers who were in Lebanon would have got the message as soon as they turned on their phones. We also told them that all calls and text messages to Sweden would be free."

The latest SMS was sent on Wednesday night to the last people still in Beirut.

Nevertheless, with over a hundred Swedish citizens still in the most dangerous southern region of Lebanon, Sweden's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not yet speaking of a successful operation.

"We have now evacuated everyone who was in Beirut," said Nina Ersman.

She told The Local that the operation had been "enormously hard work" for the Swedish officials sent to the region, but that everyone involved understood that criticism was part of the job.

"Almost 5,000 people, who are all in a state of anguish, have been evacuated from a war zone. Of course there is a lot of misunderstanding and confusion," she said.

Some 200 Swedish personnel were sent to key locations in the region, such as the Lebanese capital Beirut, Damascus in Syria, Larnaca in Cyprus and ports in Turkey, to organise the evacuation.

Foreign ministry officials, police officers, social services staff and experts from the Swedish Rescue Services Agency are in the area, and Nina Ersman said that staff will remain in Beirut until every Swede is evacuated from southern Lebanon.

"What we learned from the tsunami has helped us this time," she explained.

"We made some major changes which have meant that we've had far more people trained and prepared to be sent out."

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