BEIRUT, Lebanon—The United States stepped up efforts Tuesday to evacuate American citizens from Lebanon as complaints grew that the effort was slow in getting started and appeared to be poorly organized.
Approximately 120 Americans were flown by helicopter out of Lebanon on Tuesday, bringing the total number of Americans evacuated since the fighting began last week to about 180, according to U.S. defense officials.
The State Department, however, said Tuesday that 350 Americans had been evacuated so far.
As many as 1,000 more are expected to leave Wednesday aboard a U.S.-chartered cruise ship that docked in Beirut on Tuesday night.
Vice Adm. Patrick Walsh, commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, defended the evacuation efforts, but he acknowledged that the evacuation didn't get under way until six days into the crisis.
"We are moving as quickly as we can," he said by videoconference from his headquarters in Bahrain. "It's a complex operation that involves an extraordinary level of effort. We're sending the very best that we have available, and we'll move at max speed."
Walsh said that in addition to the Greek ship Orient Queen, six Navy warships from the USS Iwo Jima strike group were en route from the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba to take part in the operation. Another three were en route from Europe, Walsh said.
All have orders to take U.S. citizens, he said. The first ship should be off the Lebanese coast on Wednesday.
"Remember, we do have a time-distance problem here," Walsh said. "We've got vessels coming all the way from the Indian Ocean. You have vessels that were in exercises ... as well as vessels in the Red Sea. So we're working against the environment, and we're making the best speed, and we'll be ready on arrival."
The U.S. Embassy in Beirut urged Americans on July 14 to consider leaving Lebanon. The next day, embassy officials announced that they were working with the Pentagon on a plan to help people evacuate.
But many Americans in Beirut expressed frustration with the evacuation effort. Many said they hadn't been told when they'd be able to leave or how they'd be evacuated.
"The embassy was just sending us e-mails occasionally, telling us that they are making plans to evacuate us," said Kristen Trotter, 21, who was working in Lebanon as an intern at a local newspaper. "All that they mention is plans. They never mention to us what to do."
Alexandria Augustine, 20, who's attending the American University of Beirut, voiced similar concerns.
"We know that the U.S. Embassy is working hard to evacuate us, but it was very difficult to get hold of them in the last past days," she said. "I want to go back home to be with my family."
Members of Congress also voiced dismay, particularly over administration plans to charge evacuees for the expense of the operation. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking not to seek reimbursement, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., introduced legislation to waive the fees.
White House officials said they had no choice, citing a 2003 law requiring that evacuees sign promissory notes agreeing to reimburse the government for the costs of their transportation.
But Tuesday night, the State Department announced that it would waive the fees. Spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement that the decision "removes one potential worry for our citizens at this difficult time."
An estimated 25,000 Americans live in Lebanon, many of them with dual citizenship, according to the U.S. State Department. U.S. officials estimate that as many as 5,000 of them are planning to leave, but Walsh said he expected that number to grow if conditions on the ground worsened.
"We're trying to move large numbers of people as fast as we can," he said.
Another cruise ship contracted by the U.S. military, the Saudi-owned Rama, with a capacity for 1,400 passengers, was sent from the Red Sea through the Suez Canal and was scheduled to arrive in Cyprus on Wednesday.
Great Britain has dispatched six warships to take part in evacuation efforts; Spain and Italy have also sent naval vessels, Walsh said, though he didn't specify how many, and he didn't say whether they'd assist in evacuating Americans.
Four of the U.S. Navy warships are amphibious ships that can accommodate as many as 1,000 people each, the admiral said. Although the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit is aboard ships in the area, Walsh said no U.S. troops would be put on the ground in Lebanon unless security conditions worsened. So far, foreign evacuations have proceeded without trouble.
Foreigners trapped in Lebanon since the fighting with Israel began a week ago can't fly out of Beirut because Israel bombed the airport's runways. Some Americans fled to Syria by road, but the State Department has advised against that because of the threat of more Israeli airstrikes.
At the White House, spokesman Tony Snow defended the U.S. response to the crisis, saying officials were ensuring that the evacuation proceeds in a safe and orderly fashion.
"You don't simply say, `Everybody show up at a certain time,' because you're going to have a flood at the docks, and what you don't want to have is that," he said. "What you want to be able to do is to move in an orderly fashion. Once they get there, you're going to have to be able to do practical things like checking IDs, making sure everybody's secure before they go on, and so forth."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Nada Raad reported from Beirut, Brown from Washington.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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