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Westerners flee Lebanon any way they can

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A British embassy official greets a British citizen Tuesday before boarding a UK warship.

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BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- The evacuation of Westerners from war-ravaged Lebanon picked up speed Tuesday as governments moved to get their citizens to safety by land, sea and air.

There was concern, however, that the evacuations were not proceeding quickly enough. The fighting between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah has turned parts of Lebanon, including the capital Beirut, into war zones.

A British warship docked in Beirut to evacuate UK citizens and two Royal Navy aircraft carriers were also in the region.

Other countries also have sent boats and planes to reach their nationals stranded by the bombing of Beirut airport, roads and bridges.

Countries from as far afield as Chile also made plans to help their citizens flee a seventh day of an Israeli bombardment that has killed 183 people in Lebanon since the start of hostilities on July 12, Lebanese authorities reported Tuesday.

U.S. citizens in Beirut boarded cruise ships, a French ferry, and American military helicopters Tuesday in a multinational effort to evacuate.

The U.S. State Department came under fire though Tuesday when it was revealed it was charging American citizens trying to escape the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon for the cost of their transportation.

Before the fighting broke out last week, there were an estimated 25,000 Americans in Lebanon, many of them with dual citizenship. As of Monday, only 70 had left, according to the U.S. State Department. (Watch as first Americans evacuated -- 1:39)

The United States had contracted with cruise ships to help evacuate its citizens, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told CNN.

"There's one docked at the ports in Beirut right now, American citizens are boarding it," he said. "We've got another cruise ship coming in this evening that will take another 900 to 1,000 people out."

U.S. State Department officials said the evacuation was part of a multinational effort, with all countries helping each other evacuate foreign nationals.

Burns said U.S. military assets would help protect the cruise ships as they travel the more than 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Beirut to Larnaca, Cyprus, through waters that were under an Israeli military blockade.

But top U.S. Democrat Nancy Pelosi criticized a law calling for citizens to pay for their emergency evacuation, saying that the government "has an obligation to get thousands of citizens out of harm's way."

"A nation that can provide more than $300 billion for a war in Iraq can provide the money to get its people out of Lebanon," she said.

The U.S. military does not charge for evacuations. Neither do the governments of France, Britain and Italy, whose governments have already ferried hundreds of their citizens out of Lebanon.

More than 100 Europeans and Americans joined at least 800 French citizens on a French ferry, the "lera Petra," which arrived in Larnaca Tuesday morning, the French Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

The ferry would return to Beirut Wednesday and later in the week to evacuate more French citizens, if the French military deemed it safe, the ministry said.

Some 150 American students at the American University in Beirut are scheduled to be evacuated Tuesday night via a boat, according to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. (Watch a trapped U.S. student cope in Lebanon -- 1:38)

Later in the week, a Greek cruise ship, the Orient Queen, was expected to arrive in Beirut to evacuate more Americans, officials at the State Department and the Pentagon told CNN. The ship, which can hold up to 800 people, would be escorted by the USS Gonzalez, Pentagon officials said.

In addition, two American military helicopters Tuesday continued to evacuate Americans with special needs, State Department officials said. The Marine CH-53 helicopters -- able to carry 36 passengers each -- had evacuated 68 Americans since Monday, the U.S. military said.

Burns said the helicopters were part of an "air bridge" from Beirut to Cyprus that has been in effect "over the last couple of days."

In addition, amphibious warships from the USS Iwo Jima strike group were heading to the Mediterranean from the Red Sea to help with the evacuations, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.

The USS Nashville, which was ahead of the four other ships in the strike group, was due to arrive late Tuesday or early Wednesday local time, while the other ships were expected later in the week, the officials said.

Hundreds of Australians will also depart Lebanon today on a ship chartered by the Federal Government.

The ship will ferry about 300 Australians from Beirut to Turkey with another 100 to travel on a Canadian ship, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports.

About 170 Australians have already been taken to Jordan by bus.

Australia's ambassador to Lebanon, Lyndal Sachs, told the ABC she was concerned for the welfare about 400 Australian families still trapped in the south of the country.

"Some of the Australians have expressed grave concern that they don't have enough food or water," she said.

There are thought to be about 24,000 Australian-Lebanese in Lebanon, many of them holding dual citizenships.

Tears of relief

An Italian vessel docked late Monday in the Cypriot port of Larnaca, carrying evacuees from Beirut, port officials said.

Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said Ottawa was doing "everything possible" to evacuate an estimated 40,000 Canadians in Lebanon. Eight Canadians were reported killed and six more critically wounded Sunday in Lebanon, he said.

Many countries sent planes to Damascus to collect some of the thousands who had made the dangerous journey from Lebanon by car.

A Spanish airforce Boeing 707 flew 113 people out of the Syrian capital and more than 152 were transported from Amman, the Foreign Ministry told Reuters.

Russia also sent Emergencies Ministry aircraft to pick up evacuees and nationals from neighboring former Soviet states.

In Duesseldorf, Germany, relatives broke down in tears of relief to hug their families arriving on planes carrying evacuees from Damascus.

"I could hug the German authorities and just want to thank everyone," said German-Lebanese woman Iman Kouteich, who was visiting her parents near the Israeli border.

"We were just stuck in bunkers and could not tell the difference between night and day anymore," Kouteich told Reuters. "Without the help of the German embassy we would have never got out in one piece."

CNN's Chris Burns, Elise Labott and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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