OTTAWA — Canada on Thursday became the first Western nation to order an evacuation of its nationals from Syria, urging some 5,000 Canadians to leave the violence-wracked Middle East nation.
Foreign Minister John Baird urged Canadian in Syria to leave the country "by any available means and while options exist."
"Today we are declaring a voluntary evacuation of all Canadians in Syria," the minister said. "The time to leave Syria is now."
Government officials meanwhile were "to undertake a voluntary evacuation over the next month"
Ottawa has been urging its nationals to leave Syria since April, but stepped up those calls in light of the "deteriorating situation" there.
Sanctions being imposed on Syria by the Arab League are expected to have a significant impact on air travel, Baird said. He added that Canadian officials in Damascus may not be able to assist anyone choosing to leave after January 14 to obtain travel documents.
Syrian authorities already have imposed "significant travel restrictions" on Canadian diplomats in the country, Baird said, making it difficult to provide consular assistance in the event of an emergency.
If the situation worsens, embassy services there may be cut "without warning."
He said passport and visa applications for Canadians and their non-Canadian spouses and children in Syria would be expedited in coming weeks. But they themselves would be responsible for booking seats on commercial flights out.
Ottawa estimates there are 5,000 Canadians in Syria, including 1,500 registered with the Canadian embassy. Many of them have dual citizenship. Those who are not registered were encouraged to do so.
The Arab League decided on November 12 to suspend Syria's membership and warned it would head to the United Nations if President Bashar al-Assad's regime pressed on with its deadly crackdown on protesters seeking his ouster.
Arab League sanctions are expected to result in the suspension of 50 percent of commercial flights in Syria, Baird said.
Canadian energy giant Suncor last week withdrew from Libya, suspending a Can$1.2 billion natural gas operation with the state-owned General Petroleum Corporation and evacuating its staff.
The United Nations this week estimated that more than 5,000 people have been killed in the Syrian government's crackdown on dissent, which enters its 10th month on Thursday.
Arab foreign ministers are to hold an emergency meeting in Cairo on Saturday to respond to Syria's proposal to admit observers in exchange for an end to regional sanctions.
Western nations say they are waiting for the Arab League meeting to decide their next move, with diplomats saying Russia would almost certainly use its Security Council veto again to prevent upping pressure on Syria unless there is a strong Arab lead on the crisis.
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