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  Plan Set for Americans to Evacuate Lebanon

Associated Press | July 17, 2006
By HAMZA HENDAWI and GEORGE PSYLLIDES

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- A commercial ship escorted by a U.S. destroyer will start evacuating some Americans from war-torn Lebanon on Tuesday and more military helicopters will be used to fly others direct to Cyprus, a U.S. official said Monday.

The plans stepped up as Israel appeared to be allowing evacuation ships through its blockade of Lebanon.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said the commercial ship, the Orient Queen, which can carry up to 750 people, will take evacuees to Cyprus. A U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Gonzalez, will escort it and the USS Iwo Jima may do so as well, he said.

There are some 25,000 Americans in Lebanon, and the U.S. Embassy has already advised those who wish to leave that they should prepare their bags _ one each person, weighing no more than 30 pounds _ and be ready for announcements on how to leave.

Thus far, three CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters _ each with a passenger capacity of 36 _ are available to fly evacuees from Beirut to a British air base on Cyprus, Whitman said, and more choppers will be made available on Tuesday.

On Sunday, two CH-53s from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which has been conducting an exercise with Jordanian forces, evacuated 21 Americans from the U.S. Embassy compound in Beirut, and Whitman said more flights were taking place Monday. He declined to provide more details about Monday's flights, citing security reasons.

More than 100 Marines were in Cyprus from the North Carolina-based unit, which is based aboard amphibious landing ships, including the Iwo Jima.

Some Americans have privately driven to Syria in recent days and from there flown to Jordan, although the U.S. government has advised Americans not to leave through Syria.

A U.S. Embassy statement released Monday instructed American citizens to be ready to leave, but did not say how it planned to evacuate them. Further instructions, it added, would be publicized both in local media and on the Embassy's web site.

The State and Defense departments were coordinating to ensure that the evacuation is "safe and carried out in an orderly fashion," the Embassy statement said.

Meanwhile, on the nearby Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus, the government there made preparations to help with the evacuation of the thousands expected to be brought out of Lebanon by the United States and European countries.

"At this stage we don't have an exact number of people. ... We'll surely have four or five ships this week alone," said Foreign Ministry official Omiros Mavromatis.

An Italian ship carrying nearly 400 evacuees was expected in the Cyprus port of Larnaca by Monday evening. The evacuees were headed to Beirut on a convoy of 17 buses.

Greece also was sending a navy frigate to a Lebanese port to pick up 100 people and has three additional warships on standby.

France, which has more than 20,000 citizens in Lebanon, chartered a Greek ferry to pick up as many as 1,200 French and other European citizens in Lebanon. Hundreds of French, mostly of Lebanese origin or partners in mixed marriages, were expected to begin boarding the ferry late Monday.

"Who knows when this will end," said Habib al-Saad, who was seeing his three sons off. "If any of our Arab leaders had a brain this would have been resolved a long time ago. But they don't," al-Saad said as his sons _ Marwan, 20, Thomas, 17, and Pierre, 10 _ looking bewildered and anxious _ listened to their father in silence.

"I am not worried about them," al-Saad said. "They will look after themselves."

Overall in Lebanon, hundreds of thousands were on the move, leaving areas considered dangerous for the relative safety of the hills east of Beirut, the eastern Bekaa valley and northern Lebanon.

Wisam Musalam, a statistics student in Lyons, France, was standing in line outside the French Culture Center, waiting to register his name for evacuation. He is not a French national, but has a residence permit in France.

"Slowly, slowly we will become like the Palestinians," he said. "A nation of refugees."

Among other developments:

_ About 850 Swedes among about 5,000 in Lebanon have been evacuated, largely to the city of Aleppo in northern Syria. Sweden also chartered three ships to bring Swedes from Beirut to Cyprus, but was awaiting security guarantees from the warring parties.

_ A British aircraft carrier and another warship _ both already in the Mediterranean _ set off Sunday on a three-day trip to the Middle East in preparation for the possible evacuation of Britons. A British Foreign Office spokesman said the first wave of Britons _ children, elderly and ill people _ left Sunday aboard the helicopter that also transported European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

_ Denmark began evacuating some 2,300 people by bus to Damascus, Syria. So far, some 700 have returned home, the Danish government said.

_ Russia's Foreign Ministry said there were more than 1,400 Russian citizens in Lebanon and more than 1,000 were ready to leave.


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