WASHINGTON—The U.S. military plans to use a commercial cruise ship escorted by a Navy destroyer for a large-scale evacuation of Americans fleeing Israel's bombardment of Lebanon.
The Orient Queen, a Greek cruise ship capable of carrying 750 passengers, was due to arrive at the island nation of Cyprus, 125 miles from Lebanon, on Tuesday, said Lt. Col. Trey Kate, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command. The USS Gonzalez will accompany the ship to Lebanon, said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Breslau, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.
People trapped in Lebanon can't fly out from Beirut because the airport is closed due to heavy bombing damage. Syria agreed to accept Americans leaving Lebanon by land, but the U.S. State Department advised against driving to Syria because so many roads and bridges in Lebanon have been destroyed and could be hit by further airstrikes.
Israeli jets and artillery began pounding Lebanon last week after gunmen from Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. Hezbollah has struck back with missile attacks on northern Israeli towns and cities, and last week a missile struck an Israeli warship several miles off the Lebanese coast. More than 200 people have been reported killed in Lebanon.
An estimated 25,000 Americans are in Lebanon, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. The U.S. government is planning for an evacuation of thousands, he said.
A group of about 100 Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit under the command of Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen in Cyprus was coordinating the evacuation.
It was unclear how many days it would take to move hundreds of Americans at a time. McCormack would only say that it would happen "in the very near future."
Only 64 Americans had been evacuated as of Monday. Marine Corps CH-53 helicopters ferried them on Sunday and Monday to Cyprus.
The U.S. Embassy in Beirut on Monday instructed Americans who wanted to be evacuated to pack and be ready, but it didn't say when they'd be leaving.
An American aircraft carrier could accommodate more people, but none was in the Mediterranean and the smaller cruise ship would be easier to maneuver into port, Breslau said.
Breslau said the operation would have to be coordinated with the Lebanese and Israeli governments before the evacuation ships entered into the danger zone.
People with urgent medical needs and elderly and unaccompanied minors will get helped out first, McCormack said. "We want to work to get everybody out who wants to get out. That's our job, and that's what we're working on."
Jonathan Godfrey, a spokesman for Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said Conyers' office had received about 30 calls from constituents demanding U.S. government action to get their loved ones out of harm's way.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said many people within his district of Dearborn, which is home to many Arab Americans, also had received numerous calls for help.
"We have been contacted by many of our constituents worried about their loved ones in harm's way, and we are working with them, the U.S. government and humanitarian organizations to help," he said. "Evacuating 25,000 Americans on a moment's notice is a difficult operation for the State Department and our military planners, but it must be handled expeditiously."
The State Department said those evacuated would pay the commercial cost for the trip.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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