320 Americans flee Lebanon
Beirut, Lebanon — At least 320 Americans left Lebanon by sea and air Tuesday, but hundreds more waited in frustration for a cruise ship hired by the U.S. to take them to Cyprus.
The U.S. Embassy tried to calm their fears, saying everyone who wanted to leave will eventually get out. The move out did not start until a team of U.S. security experts arrived in Lebanon over the weekend to plan the operation, which will bill the evacuees.
U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman said 1,000 more Americans will leave Wednesday.
“We at the embassy don’t have the experience to move a lot of people. Luckily, the U.S. government does,” he said. “Security and safe travel were what’s on our minds.”
By the end of the week, 1,000 Americans a day will be evacuated, he said, without elaborating.
Feltman said 120 Americans were ferried by military helicopter to Cyprus.
Marines helped children put on helmets and flak jackets before guiding them up into the aircraft. Feltman stood nearby waving and blowing kisses to the departing Americans.
The Hual Transporter, a ship chartered by Sweden, left Beirut Tuesday evening with 1,000 Scandinavians and other Europeans, and Feltman said 200 Americans also were aboard. Other Europeans were able to depart Lebanon by plane.
The Orient Queen, a rented cruise ship that can carry 750 people, steamed toward Beirut escorted by an American warship, but it was not clear when it would arrive.
The U.S. Embassy had said the ship would evacuate the Americans on Tuesday, but it had not pulled into the port by nightfall, when officials were not likely to move hundreds of Americans through the city to the vessel.
To get on the ship, Americans must sign a note pledging to reimburse the U.S. government. They will be charged the cost of a single commercial flight from Beirut to Cyprus — usually about $150 or $200, although officials refused to specify. If they have no way to fly onward, they also will be asked to reimburse the cost of an airline ticket from Cyprus to the United States.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi objected to billing evacuees.
“A nation that can provide more than $300 billion for a war in Iraq can provide the money to get its people out of Lebanon,” Pelosi said.
An estimated 25,000 Americans are in Lebanon, and about 8,000 reportedly want to leave.
The U.S. Embassy said it had begun contacting Americans “for a series of departures from Lebanon via air and sea” and told citizens “not to move” until contacted by the embassy.
The embassy said helicopters “continued to fly American citizens with urgent medical problems and for humanitarian reasons out of Lebanon.”
The helicopters carry 32 people at a time, U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which has been on exercises in the Red Sea, has been ordered to waters off Lebanon to assist, the Navy said. The U.S. ships, including the amphibious assault ships USS Iwo Jima, USS Nashville and USS Whidbey Island, were not expected to arrive for a day or so.
“It is a chaotic situation in Lebanon,” said Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, speaking on CBS’ “The Early Show.” “Our advice to American citizens, if they’re in a dangerous area, is to stay put. Get in touch with us.”
Israel set up a sea blockade of Lebanon after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid July 12. Lebanon’s only international airport has been shut since Israeli jets bombed its three runways last week.
The United Nations, which has 400 staff members in Lebanon, said it was evacuating all nonessential workers from Beirut as Israel and Hezbollah militants traded bomb and rocket strikes in the seventh day of fighting.
Jonathan Chakhtoura, a 19-year-old Lebanese-American student, said he registered electronically with the U.S. Embassy to be evacuated, but he has not heard back for three days, except for an e-mail acknowledging his registration.
Chakhtoura, who wants to be back in Boston before school resumes Sept. 6, said he was disappointed with the way the embassy has handled the evacuation.
“Every time I call to see what’s going on the lines are busy. When they answer, they say they don’t know,” he said. “There is so much confusion. If it’s security they are worried about, then I think we will be more secure if we know what is going on.”
A Pennsylvania man and his wife on the Swedish-chartered ship expressed anger at how long the evacuation was taking.
“I can’t wait any more. I’m sorry it’s taking them too long,” said the man, who declined to give his name.
In the Cypriot port of Larnaca, the French-chartered Greek cruise ship Ierapetra arrived with 700 French citizens and others, including 34 Americans — many of them students.
“In the last few days we were waiting to get out,” said Ryan Furhu, 20, of Baltimore, who had been studying Arabic at the American University of Beirut.
In other developments:
— An Italian warship brought more than 300 Italians and other Westerners to Cyprus.
— The Canadian government said it has arranged for ships to evacuate Canadians starting Wednesday.
— Poland began evacuating about 200 of its citizens.
— Denmark said it expects to evacuate 1,700 people, mainly through Syria. The Foreign Ministry estimated that 1,000 Danes could be trapped in southern Lebanon.
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