LARNACA, Cyprus—In the first mass evacuation of Americans from foreign soil since the fall of Vietnam three decades ago, a cruise ship with nearly 1,000 U.S. citizens fleeing the Israeli war on Lebanon set sail for this small, muggy Mediterranean island late Wednesday.
The Orient Queen, a newly refurbished vessel with a casino and two swimming pools, left Beirut's port in the first 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 east 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. "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.
Officials in Cyprus said the American evacuees would be flown back to the United States aboard 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 planes bound for the U.S. East Coast were scheduled to leave Cyprus soon after the ship's arrival, said Kate Zimmerman, deputy chief of the U.S. Embassy here.
"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 has not occurred since the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
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."
The State Department also came under fire for informing Americans in Lebanon that they would have to repay the government for evacuation costs, a measure required by law since 2003.
But late Tuesday the Bush administration bowed to a public outcry and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice waived the fees.
Meanwhile, thousands of foreigners in Lebanon continue to flee the fighting by any means possible. As many as 10,000 are expected to pass through Cyprus in the coming days.
Earlier Wednesday, about 130 American college students reached Cyprus aboard a Norwegian boat that usually ferries cars. They were among 1,200 who made the 10-hour journey from Beirut, huddling below deck in the crew's quarters with little to eat and not much space to sleep.
When the ship docked about 4 a.m., some of the students had to scramble to find a place to stay and to get plane tickets off the island. The southern coast of Cyprus is lined with hotels, but this is the height of the summer tourist season and rooms are in short supply.
Among the luckier ones was Nick Giambruno, a 22-year-old senior from Victoria, Minn., who was on a summer program at the American University in Beirut. Before leaving he telephoned his parents, who found him a hotel room in Larnaca and a ticket to Amman, Jordan, on Thursday morning.
Giambruno said he'd have stayed in Beirut had the university not canceled classes. Sheltered on campus, with food, water and working access to the Internet, the students were far from the violence—although they could hear bombs exploding in the distance.
Now safely in Larnaca, surfing the Internet from a wireless connection in a sunny hotel lobby, Giambruno lamented the attacks.
"I feel bad for the city of Beirut," he said. "It was coming back with a lot of tourism, a lot of construction. It was a fun, cosmopolitan city, and it's a tragedy to see it reduced to this."
(Bengali reported from Cyprus, Brown from Washington. Hannah Allam contributed from Beirut.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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