By Renju Jose
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia said on Wednesday it had deployed two more military aircraft and a "significant number" of defence personnel to the Middle East to help support its citizens there if the ongoing war between Israel and militant group Hamas escalates.
A deadly cross-border attack by Iran-backed Hamas on Oct. 7 stunned Israel, killing more than 1,400 people, while the Palestinian health ministry said at least 5,791 Palestinians had been killed by subsequent Israeli bombardments, including 2,360 children.
Australia sent a Boeing C-17 aircraft and an air refueler plane that has the capacity to carry passengers, taking the total to three, Defence Minister Richard Marles said.
He did not disclose the total number of personnel deployed and where the aircraft would be based due to security reasons but said they would not be based in Israel.
"It is a significant number of personnel, though, and they're there to support the aircraft and to support what that aircraft might ultimately have to do," Marles told Channel Nine.
"All of this is a contingency and the purpose of it is to be supporting Australian populations that are in the Middle East ... this is a very volatile situation and we just don't absolutely know which way it goes from here."
Since the conflict began, the Australian government has conducted repatriation flights for citizens stranded in Israel. It has been trying to rescue 79 Australians from the Israeli-besieged Gaza Strip and 51 from the West Bank.
Australians in Gaza should try to move toward the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, the main entry and exit point to Gaza that does not lead to Israel, Marles said.
Marles urged Australians in Lebanon who want to leave the country to use all options available after deadly clashes between Israel and Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group.
Australia on Wednesday also unveiled a new A$20 million ($12.7 million) military package for Ukraine, taking its total aid to A$910 million since Russia invaded in February 2022.
($1 = 1.5736 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Stephen Coates)