LARNACA, Cyprus—In the first mass evacuation of Americans from foreign soil since the fall of Vietnam three decades ago, a cruise ship brought nearly 1,000 U.S. citizens fleeing the Israeli war on Lebanon to this small, muggy Mediterranean island early Thursday.
"It's a relief," said Nabil El-Hage, 47, who descended the ship shortly after 2 a.m. local time with his 17-year-old daughter. They were scheduled to fly home Thursday on a U.S.-chartered commercial plane to reunite with his wife and child in Weston, Mass.
The Orient Queen, a newly refurbished vessel with a casino and two swimming pools, set sail from Beirut, bringing the first big wave of Americans to be evacuated since fighting broke out one week ago between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas. The destruction is Lebanon's worst in two decades. Hundreds of civilians have been killed.
After complaints that the evacuation was slow to start, U.S. officials said that about 2,000 more Americans would travel to Cyprus on Thursday by ships and military helicopters, and that the operation would continue until all U.S. citizens who want to leave Lebanon have done so.
"This operation cannot move fast enough," said Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen, commander of the military task force leading the evacuation.
About 1,500 Americans have been evacuated so far. Starting Thursday, Jensen said, the amphibious ship USS Nashville and the Saudi-owned Rahmah cruise liner would also begin ferrying passengers to Cyprus, the base of the evacuation effort 150 miles west of Lebanon.
The destroyers USS Gonzalez and USS Barry are already off the Lebanese coast to guard the ferries, and a half-dozen more Navy vessels are headed to the region.
Jensen said about 6,000 Americans would be evacuated by the weekend.
Chinook helicopters began transporting small numbers of Americans on Sunday, but the flights were largely restricted to sick or elderly people and families with young children.
Choppers carried 120 people out on Tuesday and about 100 more on Wednesday, but Jensen said the number of flights would increase starting Thursday so that up to 200 people could be airlifted daily.
"That'll be the rhythm for as long as people are out there," said an embassy official in Beirut who wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "We're committed to taking every single American out."
An estimated 25,000 Americans, many of them with dual citizenship, live in Lebanon, according to the U.S. State Department. Other nations too are scrambling to move their citizens to safety.
At least several hundred Americans are trapped in southern Lebanon because of the fighting, said Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. They were in a "holding pattern" until it becomes safe enough for them to travel out by bus, she said.
Officials said the American evacuees would be flown back to the United States aboard nine chartered commercial planes.
Consular teams were deployed at the modest airport in Larnaca, a resort town already crammed with summer beachgoers, to help with the processing of visas. The first plane would arrive in Baltimore Washington International Airport late Thursday, said Kate Zimmerman, deputy chief of the U.S. Embassy in Cyprus.
"We're trying to keep people on the ground as short a time as possible," Zimmerman said.
The embassy has rented two large, air-conditioned buildings at the national fairgrounds to serve as a temporary shelter for evacuees who aren't immediately put on flights. Cots and medical facilities were being brought in to the 22,000-square-foot space.
The United States has evacuated citizens from several countries in recent years, but an evacuation of this scale hasn't occurred since the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Earlier this week, the State Department also came under fire for informing evacuees that they would have to repay the government for evacuation costs, a measure required by law since 2003. But later the Bush administration bowed to a public outcry and waived the fees.
In Beirut, the embassy has been inundated with calls from terrified families desperate for a way out. Support staff arrived to double the tiny mission, and still some workers there haven't slept in three days as they prepared for the evacuation and manned the phone lines. Calls were being received at a rate of 400 or 500 an hour.
An embassy official acknowledged the problems: "It's hot and humid, just disgusting. Electricity's been out. They're scared and they're anxious. It's what happens in a disaster."
Feelings were still raw for some of the Americans who arrived on the Orient Queen.
"It was really a disaster," said Linda Caribi, 22, who was vacationing from Austin, Texas. "We waited a very, very long time to get out. It was very, very chaotic.
"We had to do everything we could to get on this boat."
Once aboard the eight-level Greek luxury liner, things seemed to improve for many evacuees. Each family had a private berth, where the showers were hot. Some took a dip in one of the two pools. The restaurants served sandwiches and cocktails.
"I had a pina colada," El-Hage said, smiling.
He and his daughter arrived in Lebanon last Wednesday and traveled to the northern village of Ehden, where his parents live. Then, the fighting began, and for the rest of the week they followed the attacks on television while trying to find a way out of the country.
"We felt safe where we were," said his daughter, Beatrice. "But we were afraid that if we didn't leave now, we wouldn't be able to leave."
(Bengali reported from Cyprus, Brown from Washington. Hannah Allam contributed from Beirut.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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