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  U.S. Evacuation Teams Arrive in Lebanon

Associated Press | July 16, 2006
By TERENCE HUNT

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia

U.S. security teams landed at the American embassy just outside Beirut on Sunday to plan the evacuation of some of the estimated 25,000 U.S. citizens living in war-torn Lebanon.

Witnesses said two helicopters flew in from over the Mediterranean and landed on the embassy grounds, located on a fortified hilltop in the north Beirut suburb of Aukar.

"The arrival of the teams is an important first step in facilitating the safe departure of Americans who want to leave Lebanon," the embassy said in a statement.

Israeli warplanes began striking Lebanon after Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on Wednesday. The guerrillas have struck back at Israeli cities, and on Sunday fired a relentless barrage of rockets into the Israeli city of Haifa, dramatically escalating the conflict.

Israeli airstrikes targeting runways have closed down Beirut's international airport. Israel has also imposed a naval blockade on the country and has made road travel dangerous by targeting the main highway between Lebanon and neighboring Syria.

"We obviously have plans and contingency plans should we need to bring people out," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters at the Group of Eight summit Sunday. "I get reports on this every couple of hours as to how this is going. Our ambassador who is on the ground will obviously do what we need to protect Americans."

The State Department said Friday that Americans in Lebanon should consider leaving when it was safe to do so. Officials made contingency plans to evacuate people who cannot leave on their own. Family members and non-emergency American employees of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon have been given permission to leave.

"We've already allowed authorized departures of some of our personnel in the embassy," Rice said on Fox News Sunday.

The United States estimates 25,000 Americans live or work in Lebanon, but officials assume far fewer would choose to leave. The State Department said it was working with the Pentagon on a plan for helping American citizens leave.

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