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After complaints, Foreign Affairs boosts service for Canadians in Egypt Add to ...

The frustrating wait has ended for many Canadians who were trying to get the federal government to tell them how to escape the turmoil that has enveloped Egypt.

The Foreign Affairs Department's decision to ramp up service at its operations centre in Ottawa, to deploy more staff to Europe and Cairo and to add several new telephone lines eased the backlog of people who could not get through to consular officials to ask for help.

"There are bumps in the road that obviously you wish you hadn't encountered but I think there's been an outstanding level of service and responsiveness to the situation," Diane Ablonczy, the Minister of State for Consular Affairs, said Tuesday.

In the end, a large number of Canadians passed on the opportunity to leave the country, opting instead to wait out the unrest that shows some signs of abating.

Government officials said staff at the Foreign Affairs Department called more than 1,000 people overnight from Monday to Tuesday and just 171 expressed a desire to get out of Egypt. The other 829 did not want to leave or weren't ready yet.

"I think the situation fluctuates depending on the perceived danger," Ms. Ablonczy said. "If the gatherings are more violent then people get concerned. Right now the gatherings are reasonably peaceful."

There is a level of personal responsibility that must be borne by those who decide to stay, she said. But "we are always there and always attempting to be on top of the situation, [to]have the resources necessary to respond."

In fact, many Canadians complained about the lack of resources earlier in the week when they could not get through to consular officials and were forced to leave phone messages that went unanswered for hours and, in some cases, days.

Liberal MP Bob Rae asked Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon in the House of Commons on Tuesday to explain why there were not more diplomats posted overseas to deal with this kind of crisis.

How can the minister explain " the complete absence of serious consular services available on the ground for Canadians in some of the most difficult and troublesome places in the world?" Mr. Rae asked.

Mr. Cannon replied that his department has done tremendous work in helping Canadians get back to Canada. "As a matter of fact," he said, "we have been getting great congratulations from all of our allies, as well as all of the Canadians who were involved."

The government said Monday that two evacuation flights that day out of Cairo had the capacity to fly 500 people to safety in Germany. In fact, only slightly more than 200 of those people were Canadian.

Another Air Canada flight landed Tuesday in Frankfurt with 129 Canadians and 44 people of other nationalities on board. And a fourth flight was scheduled to depart for Paris later in the day with an unknown number of passengers.

By late Tuesday afternoon, the operations centre in Ottawa had received more than 12,000 calls, both from Canadians in Egypt and from concerned family members in Canada.

Adel Iskander of the Egyptian Canadian Friendship Association, who complained Monday that people wanting to leave Egypt could not get the information they needed, said Tuesday that the government was taking matters in hand.

Mr. Iksander was also optimistic that the demonstrations that have consumed Cairo would be resolved peacefully - and that future elections could be conducted in a way that would satisfy the Egyptian people.

"It has to be fair this time," he said. "Once people know there is a solution that they can go out in the street then there is no way back. You have to do it straight. Otherwise they are going to be back in the street again."

With reports from Campbell Clark and Jane Taber

Out of Egypt

Foreign countries are stepping up efforts to evacuate their nationals from Egypt.

  • The United States evacuated more than 1,200 Americans from Cairo on Monday and said it expected to fly out roughly 1,400 more in the coming days. On Tuesday, the United States added the Egyptian cities of Aswan and Luxor as departure points.
  • Britain said it would send a chartered Boeing 757, capable of carrying 200 passengers, to Cairo on Wednesday. It had said earlier it was not ordering diplomatic staff to leave Egypt, but confirmed that the families of most have done so. Britain is advising against travel to Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Suez. However, about 15,000 British tourists staying in coastal resorts on the Red Sea have been told they are safe to continue their vacations.
  • Germany said Tuesday it was expanding its travel warning to include the Red Sea resorts but is not ordering evacuations. The German units of travel companies TUI and Thomas Cook and German tour operator Rewe said they would cancel all trips to Egypt up to Feb. 14.
  • Russia has urged its citizens not to travel to Egypt and advised those already in the country to head home. However, only 18 of some 18,000 Russian vacationers in the country have asked to leave early, an official of the tour agency Pegas Touristik said.
  • Nearly 500 Chinese nationals left Cairo on Tuesday. Another two aircraft were heading to the capital to pick up more Chinese citizens and one jet was flying to Luxor to pick up about 220 Hong Kong residents.
  • Taiwan and Japan are using charter and commercial flights to bring their citizens back.
  • In an ironic twist, Iraq has dispatched three planes to Egypt - including the Prime Minister's aircraft - to bring home Iraqi citizens who wish to return. Thousands of Iraqis have fled to Egypt over the years to escape the violence in their own country.

Wire services

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